Does ‘Net Zero’ make sense?

A lot of people are worried about climate change and global warming. Who can blame them? We are constantly told that global climate catastrophe is only a few years away or that “time has quite literally run out” as then Prince Charles did at COP26 in 2021. “Our world is burning” warnings by prominent leaders such as UN Secretary General Guterres are giving high school students a new kind of mental health trauma – eco-anxiety.

Politicians have responded by promising to stop climate change by reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Their goal is to cap global warming at a 1.5°C increase over temperatures in pre-industrial times (1850-1900).

Spoiler alert! They are going to fail.

Why? There are two powerful reasons. (1) CO2 has not been the primary driver of temperature through time. (2) Natural forces such as Milankovitch Cycles have much more influence than the contribution of CO2. The solar forcing above 65º N latitude, the usual measure of the Milankovitch influence, can swing back and forth by as much as 100 W/m2 (see here and graph a here). This is significantly more than a 3 W/m2 increase that would result from doubling today’s CO2 level of 420 ppm, which would “have an inconsequential effect on global temperature.”

Thinking that we can stop climate change which has been going on for millions of years is like thinking that we can stop the movement of tectonic plates. And, by the way, these also contribute to climate change.

Net Zero is the proposed solution. Here’s how the United Nations explains the concept:

Put simply, Net Zero means cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere, by oceans and forests for instance …

To keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C – as called for in the Paris Agreement – emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach Net Zero by 2050.
Transitioning to a net-zero world is one of the greatest challenges humankind has faced. It calls for nothing less than a complete transformation of how we produce, consume, and move about. The energy sector is the source of around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions today and holds the key to averting the worst effects of climate change. Replacing polluting coal, gas and oil-fired power with energy from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, would dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

But upon close inspection, Net Zero makes little sense.

Let’s look at the second largest emitter of GHGs, the USA, and one of the smallest, the City of Toronto, Canada where I live.

Net Zero for the United States

US Senator for Louisiana John Kennedy recently questioned Department of Energy Deputy Secretary David Turk about Net Zero. The exchange is highly revealing. Astonishingly, Mr Turk was unprepared for basic questions and kept talking about “orders of magnitude” and “getting our act together”. Senator Kennedy said that some of Mr Turk’s colleagues had mentioned US$50 trillion as the cost of fighting climate change.

With a bit of math and science, you can figure out for yourself whether American taxpayers are going to get bang for their bucks. Sharpen your pencil. It’s not hard.

There are three sources of temperature data: ground stations, weather balloons, and satellites.

Satellite data tell us that our atmosphere is warming at 0.13 ℃ / decade or 0.013 ℃ / year. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated, “For the decade 2011–2020, the increase in global surface temperature since 1850–1900 is assessed to be 1.09 [0.95 to 1.20] °C” (p. 41 here). Therefore, the IPCC range of warming is 0.0056 ℃ / year to 0.011 ℃ / year.

Let’s take the high end of the warming -- 0.01 ℃ / year. Warming is due to natural causes and to GHGs; from 1850 to 2020 natural causes and GHGs have accounted for about 58% and 42% of warming respectively (footnote 4 here); let’s assume it’s 50/50. The US produces 13% of global GHGs. The human contribution to global warming will decrease every year until we hit Net Zero; the correction factor for that is ½. Lastly, there are only 27 years to go until 2050, the date for global Net Zero.

Multiply those numbers and you’ll get 0.009 ℃ (.01 x 0.5 x 0.13 x 0.5 x 27 ≃0.009). That’s the number that Senator Kennedy was asking for. In other words, American taxpayers will spend $50 trillion (about $150,000 per person) to avoid 0.009 ℃ of warming.

A high school student could tell you that this makes no sense.

When the New York State Legislature became the first US state to ban gas stoves and furnaces in most new buildings to reduce global warming, were its members aware of these facts? 

And bear in mind that China, the world’s largest contributor to GHGs, could make America’s Net Zero target irrelevant. Premier Xi Jinping has promised that China will reach Net Zero by 2060. Given the unpredictability of China’s politics and economy, that seems impossibly ambitious. The Climate Action Tracker rates China’s Net Zero efforts as “highly insufficient”. It doesn’t have a great track record. While the US reduced its share of global GHG emissions from 2005 to 2019 from 17.3% to 12.5%, China’s share rose from 18.7% to 26.4%.

Toronto’s Net Zero

In 2019, City of Toronto Council voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency and committed to achieving Net Zero by 2040, one of the most ambitious Net Zero targets in North America. A news release stated:

Toronto is joining more than 800 cities around the world in acknowledging the scale of the climate crisis including Amsterdam, Auckland, Barcelona, Edmonton, London, Los Angeles, Montréal, New York City, Ottawa, Paris, San Francisco, Sydney and Vancouver.

As of today, 2,335 jurisdictions around the world have declared a climate emergency. Could the governments of so many big cities spanning the globe all be wrong? Yes, it is possible, especially if their politicians didn’t ask probing questions like Senator Kennedy did. Groupthink can lead to bad decisions.

To illustrate how sweeping this policy is, Toronto will use “a climate lens that evaluates and considers the climate impacts of all major City of Toronto decisions, including financial decisions” (see para 6.e here). This means in effect that reducing GHGs will outweigh all other criteria and considerations during the budget preparation process.

In December 2021, Toronto City Council adopted the ambitious TransformTO Net Zero Strategy cementing its commitment to GHG reduction. An April 2023 TransformTO update stated, “The Carbon Accountability Report also establishes a science-based corporate policy on offset credits aligned with Net Zero governance best practices, which will continue Toronto’s leadership in this rapidly developing space.”

Got that? Let’s take a closer look at this so-called “science-based” leadership.

Since Canada emits 1.5% of global GHG emissions, and Toronto has approximately 7.6% of Canada’s total population, we know that Toronto emits about 0.11% of global GHG emissions (.015 x .076 = .0011). Do the math as described above, and you’ll see that Toronto’s GHG emissions contribute about 0.000006 ℃ / year to global warming (.01 x .5 x .0011 ≃ 0.000006).

Toronto’s Net Zero Cost

Let’s now look at how much TransformTO Net Zero costs and bring it all together. For some perspective, Toronto’s 2023 operating budget is C$16.16 billion, and its capital budget is C$49.26 billion. TransformTO 2022 Annual Report: Laying the Foundation for Net Zero states: “the total investment required by the entire community, that is, the City corporation, the business community, other levels of government, and individual residents, is $145 billion.” Some of that will be spent on “climate resilience” measures that will not reduce GHGs.

Think about this for a minute. C$145 billion will be spent to avoid 0.00005 ℃ of global warming (0.000006 x 0.5 x 17 ≃ 0.00005).

The impact to Earth’s climate will be negligible, but the cost to Toronto and other levels of government will be huge, because money spent on Net Zero is money that could have been spent solving real problems related to health care, homelessness (declared an emergency in Toronto), education, etc.

This is not to say that we should never pursue green energy solutions. For example, the Toronto Transit Commission studied the deployment of e-buses. In comparison to a diesel fleet, the study concluded, “In 2040, when the capital costs and operating savings have normalized, the annual savings is projected to be $253.6 million.”

These significant savings would be in addition to reduced noise and cleaner air. Who could argue with that?

It’s likely, however, that the anticipated benefits of a successful deployment of an e-bus fleet will be conflated with the GHG reduction that will come from phasing out a diesel fleet, but those are two different things. The former is beneficial and consequential whereas the latter is not. Perhaps astonishingly, according to the CO2 Coalition, “People should be celebrating, not demonizing, modern increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). We cannot overstate the importance of the gas. Without it, life doesn’t exist.”

Politicians will try to present themselves as having accomplished something important with the reduction of GHGs, especially CO2, but they are setting themselves up for failure. The green energy sector will make megabucks, but not the rest of us. As they say, “Follow the money.”

We need to look after our environment and respond to climate change in more sensible ways, keeping in mind that CO2 is not a pollutant and is not involved in the production of smog.

Does your country, state, or city have a Net Zero program? If so, do the math and write to your elected representative with your concerns. Those numbers will communicate a powerful story.


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