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Oxfam: ‘net zero’ targets can distract and delay emissions reductions

3 August 2021

Governments and corporations rely on ‘unreliable’ and ‘unrealistic’ carbon removal schemes to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050, a new Oxfam report has said.

Using land alone to remove global carbon emissions, and thus achieving ‘net zero’ by 2050, would require 1.6 billion hectares of new forests. The aforementioned area is five times the size of India, or more than all the farmland on the planet.

“Land is a finite and precious resource. It is what millions of small-scale farmers and Indigenous people around the world depend upon for their livelihoods,” Says Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland, Jim Clarken.

The report found a pressure on demand for land as an unintended consequences of carbon removal schemes adopted by many governments and companies. These targets are often without clear definition and thus risk being reliant on large swaths of land in low-income countries.

So although ‘net zero’ may sound like a good idea, Mr. Clarken found, “over-relying on planting trees and as-yet-unproven technology instead of genuinely shifting away from fossil fueled-dependent economies is a dangerous folly. We will be hoodwinked by ‘net zero’ targets if all they amount to are smokescreens for dirty business-as-usual.” 

Additionally, land-based carbon removal methods like mass tree planting could spur an “explosion in demand for land”. This could lead to an increase in global food prices by about 80 per cent by 2050.

“Under current plans, there is simply not enough land in the world to realise them all. They could instead spark even more hunger, land grabs and human rights abuses, while polluters use them as an alibi to keep polluting,” Clarken added.

Extinction Rebellion member at protest outside forestry event Photo: Kayle Crosson
Extinction Rebellion member at a protest outside forestry event in 2019 Photo: Kayle Crosson

No magic fixes

Rather than relying on outsourcing carbon removal to reach net zero a society-wide change is required, the report said.

According to Mr. Clarken, the approach must be “supported by a broad supportive national policy framework”.  Although he recognizes nature and land-based carbon removal schemes as an important part to halting global emissions, they should be pursued in a “much more cautious way”.

If companies and governments use net zero targets, they should be “measurable, transparent and prioritise dramatically slashing emissions by 2030,” according to Mr. Clarken.

The report also demanded a stronger focus on cutting carbon in the near term, G20 prioritisation of ambitious climate action, transparency targets, for companies take steps to cut emissions in their own operations, and for land use to ensure zero hunger.

“There are no magic fixes to reach ‘net zero’,” urged Mr. Clarken.

“Ireland should not expect offsets in low- and middle-income countries to come to the rescue if we miss our emission targets.”

By Sam Starkey