Implausible ‘net zero’ targets are dangerous distraction from priority of cutting emissions - Oxfam

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Land-hungry ‘net zero’ schemes would require an area equivalent to all the farmland on Earth to be forested, putting food security at risk

Using land alone to remove the world’s carbon emissions to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2050 would require at least 1.6 billion hectares of new forests, equivalent to five times the size of India or more than all the farmland on the planet, reveals an Oxfam report today.

Oxfam’s report Tightening the Net says that too many governments and corporations are hiding behind unreliable, unproven and unrealistic ’carbon removal’ schemes in order to claim their 2050 climate change plans will be ‘net zero’. Their sudden rush of ‘net zero’ promises are relying too much on vast swathes of land to plant trees in order to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. At the same time, they are failing to cut emissions quickly or deeply enough to avert catastrophic climate breakdown.

To limit warming below 1.5°C and prevent irreversible damage from climate change, the world collectively should be on track to reduce carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 from 2010 levels, with the sharpest cuts being made by the biggest emitters. Countries’ current plans to cut emissions are nowhere near, totalling around 1 per cent reduction in global emissions by 2030 according to the most recent stocktake.

The climate crisis is already devastating agriculture globally. It is driving worsening humanitarian crises, hunger and migration. People living in poverty, particularly women farmers and Indigenous people, are being affected first and worst. It is undermining efforts to tackle poverty around the world.

Danny Sriskandarajah, Chief Executive of Oxfam GB, said: “Too many companies and governments are hiding behind the smokescreen of ‘net zero’ to continue dirty business-as-usual activities.

“A prime example of the doublethink we are seeing is the oil and gas sector trying to justify its ongoing extraction of fossil fuels by promising unrealistic carbon removal schemes that require ludicrous amounts of land.

“Net zero targets are vital to tackling climate change. Some governments and companies are taking bold action to cut carbon emissions but there are currently too few to give us a realistic chance of averting climate catastrophe and the widespread hunger and devastation that come with it.

“The UK Government needs to be a credible broker for a deal that can stop the planet overheating when it hosts the COP26 climate talks in November – so it is imperative that it stops licensing new oil and gas in the North Sea, including a possible new oilfield near the Shetland Islands.”

Oxfam recently reported that global food prices have risen by 40 per cent in the past year which has contributed to 20 million more people falling into catastrophic conditions of hunger and a six-fold increase in famine-like conditions. If used at scale, land-based carbon removal methods such as mass tree planting could see global food prices surging by 80 per cent by 2050.

One-fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest publicly-listed corporations now have ‘net-zero’ goals that are dependent upon land-based carbon sinks.

  • The ‘net-zero’ climate promises of four of the world’s largest oil and gas corporations ― BP, Eni, Shell and Total Energies ― could require them foresting an area of land more than twice the size of the UK to achieve net zero by 2050.
  • If the entire energy sector ―whose emissions continue to soar― were to set similar ‘net-zero’ targets, it would require an area of land nearly the size of the Amazon rainforest, equivalent to a third of all farmland worldwide.
  • The proposed Cambo oil project near the Shetland Islands could produce up to 255 million barrels of oil over its lifetime, releasing an estimated 132 million tonnes of CO2e emissions. To remove these emissions from the atmosphere it would require an area of land the size of England or more than 1.5 times Scotland.

In the run-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this year, more than 120 countries, including the world’s top three emitters ―the US, China and the EU― have pledged to reach ‘net-zero’ by mid-century. Most of these pledges are vague and not backed by measurable plans.

  • Even a country as small as Switzerland could need land nearly equivalent to the entire island of Puerto Rico to plant enough trees to meet its ‘net zero’ target. Switzerland has recently struck carbon-offsetting deals with Peru and Ghana.
  • Colombia has a ‘net zero’ target that requires reforesting over one million hectares of land by 2030, even though rates of deforestation continue to climb.

Sriskandarajah said: “Land is a finite and precious resource that millions of small-scale farmers and Indigenous people depend upon to feed their families. Nature and land-based carbon removal schemes are an important part of the mix to lower emissions but more caution is needed to ensure good stewardship that doesn’t threaten food security.”

With less than 100 days left until the UN climate talks in Glasgow, governments and corporations need a much stronger focus on swiftly and deeply cutting carbon emissions in the near-term, starting at home and with their own operations and supply chains. If ‘net-zero’ targets are used, they should be measurable, transparent and prioritise dramatically slashing emissions by 2030. Removing emissions is not a substitute for cutting emissions, and these should be counted separately.

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For interviews or an advanced copy of the report Tightening the Net please contact:

  • Tania Corbett / / 07824 824 359

Notes to editors:

According to the IPCC, large-scale afforestation could increase food prices by about 80 per cent by 2050. This would push millions more people into hunger.

The Cambo oil project near the Shetland Islands is due to operate until 2050. The initial plans for the project could produce up to 170 million barrels of oil, but the oilfield has the potential to produce up to 255 million barrels which would release an estimated 132 million tonnes of CO2e emissions. This is based on full scope emissions of 517kg Co2e per barrel of oil, using UK Forties Blend on the Oil-Climate Index. Oxfam’s Tightening the Net report estimates 0.10 hectare of forested land is needed to remove 1 tonne of CO2 emissions. Full methodology is available here.

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