In 2022 the IUF will publish a series of articles on the critical role which unions must play in defending rights and demanding social and economic change to prevent climate catastrophe. It is the role of the IUF and its affiliates to demand change in the food system which is responsible for around a third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The energy sector and the world food system are interconnected, and the world must stop burning fossil fuels and hasten the transition to agroecology. IUF Assistant General Secretary James Ritchie kicks off the series with a critical look at net zero pledges.
The Climate Crisis and Net Zero Pledges
The world is failing to meet any of the targets set for limiting climate change or halting the loss of biodiversity. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to soar, and floods, heatwaves and droughts intensify with every passing year.
At the recent COP26 conference on the climate hosted by the UK Government in Glasgow, rich countries made pledges to be net zero on carbon emissions, mostly by a target date of 2050. Net zero means that all man-made greenhouse gas emissions must be removed from the atmosphere through reduction measures. As we continue to increase emissions, the amount of negative emissions required to meet the target increases. Negative emissions are practices and technologies which remove and permanently store CO₂. The goal agreed at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 is to limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Big GHG emitters such as major meat, dairy and other food and beverage companies have populated their annual reports with targets to reach net zero emissions by 2050. This ‘pollute now, pay later’ approach is a reckless gamble with no feasible or cost effective technology in place to meet the soaring climate debt.
Emission reduction plans rarely involve reducing production and sales or abandoning intensive agricultural practices at the scale which is necessary. Plans usually take the form of a reduction in emissions per kg of meat or milk fat or some other unit of food produced and are not an overall reduction in emissions. The deficit is met by the purchase of carbon credits in a market created to mask the existential crisis brought about by the market-led economic system. A carbon credit is a permit or certificate that allows the holder to emit 1 ton of CO₂. Companies can use these credits to offset the CO₂ they emit. This balancing act is the mythical route to net zero.
In April 2021, three leading European climate scientists declared that the concept of net zero is a dangerous trap. The University of Exeter’s James Dyke, the University of East Anglia’s Robert Watson and the University of Lund’s Wolfgang Knorr condemned the “fantasy of net-zero” and concluded “current net-zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5C because they were never intended to.”
The development of integrated assessment models that link economic activity to the climate and promise future technological solutions to remove or store carbon has become a lucrative business. Untested carbon dioxide removal mechanisms promoted by corporations and backed by wealthy nations are enablers of ‘business as usual’ and will lead to inevitable climate catastrophe.
When the net zero industry is not betting on future carbon removal technology, it is assuming emissions can be fully compensated or offset by protecting a forest, a wetland, or planting trees. Corporate pledges to offset carbon in this way appear with regularity in company annual reports. The unwritten assumption is that there are no limits to being able to compensate for a company’s own emissions.
The Emissions Trading System (ETS), based on EU regulations, allows companies that go over their CO₂ emissions quotas to buy credits from companies that are under their caps. As emission limits are lowered every year, the price of a credit has risen to more than 60 euros from 4 euros in 2016. According to the World Bank, credits worth more than 23 billion euros went through the major ETS market in 2020.
There are also voluntary markets where credits are available through a private registry system and are much cheaper. Trading volumes in voluntary markets have jumped seven fold over the last 4 years.
A recent investigation by Nikkei Asia concluded that an Indonesian carbon credit programme involving one of the world’s largest forest preservation projects has issued credits up to three times more than the amount of carbon dioxide the forest is likely to absorb.The project is intended to conserve tropical peatland as a vast carbon sink and prevent commercial forestry by suspending development rights. Carbon credits can be issued based on the amount of CO₂ that will be absorbed as long as forests are conserved. Since 2017, the Indonesian project has issued voluntary credits equivalent to 30 million tons and brought in an estimated USD 210 million in revenue.
Credits are bought and sold to prevent deforestation and reduce emissions through the concept of additionality. “Additionality” refers to the “extra good for preventing global warming” that a project is expected to create but the Indonesian project is selling credits on land that has been subject to a moratorium on development since 2011. The land is not at risk of deforestation under current Government restrictions and therefore ‘additionality’ cannot be validated.
Nikkei Asia cites Compensate, a Finnish nonprofit organization, in claiming more than 70% of such projects have either questionable additionality or unreliable baselines which result in overestimation of the potential benefits. The issuance of phantom or fake credits is also common.
As the demand for carbon sinks grows, so do the incentives for governments in developing countries to establish and protect forests, and to move people off the land they currently cultivate in ways that are less intensive and climate damaging than the intensive farming techniques prevalent in the developed world. Women, indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups make up the majority of today’s victims of the climate crisis.
The obsessive pursuit of economic growth and the belief in the efficiency of unfettered markets is the sure path to climate catastrophe. Our earth has finite resources and our climate is near an irreversible tipping point.
The only solution to keep humanity safe is immediate and sustained cuts in GHG emissions while at the same time protecting human rights and promoting social justice.
The IUF and its affiliates must challenge governments and employers to aggressively reduce emissions. Our demands require governments and employers to stop burning fossil fuels and transfer to renewable sources of energy now. We must transition to agro-ecological farming techniques which renew and recycle natural resources. This will require new skills and new jobs and the transition must be negotiated by unions to ensure justice is delivered and rights are upheld.
The task ahead is difficult but essential, and together workers and their communities must organize, fight and win an immediate, necessary and just transition to renewable energy and a sustainable food system anchored in equality and the protection of rights.