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Bill Gates is known as one of the world’s leading proponents of “net zero.” The tech billionaire said that reaching “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 will be “the most difficult challenge humanity has ever taken on” and “the most amazing thing humanity has ever done.”
Shifting the world’s greenhouse gas emissions from today’s 52 billion tons to net zero over the next three decades, according to Gates, means “we need to find better ways to do pretty much everything” from the “food we eat” to the “buildings we live in,” because “[v]irtually every human activity produces greenhouse gas emissions.”
But when Gates refers to “net zero,” he does not mean actual zero, as in no emissions.
Adding the word “net” into the equation for redoing “virtually every human activity” substantially changes the meaning of “zero.”
And Gates has helped convince most countries of the world to add that small, poorly understood, seemingly harmless word “net” into their climate change pledges.
So what, exactly, does net zero emissions mean to Gates and others who share his ambitions?
Ecological activist Vandana Shiva, Ph.D., told The Defender:
“‘Net zero,’ as Bill Gates admits in his book, ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,’ is not about polluters stopping their pollution. It is about polluters getting new profits by creating new markets for fake techno-fixes like geoengineering and fake food, and new forms of land grab through ‘carbon offsets.’
“Net zero is a financial scam like the subprime crisis of 2008, which led to the collapse of Wall Street and entire economies.”
The future implications of net zero are far-reaching. The worldwide push for net zero has turned “carbon credits” into globally traded financial instruments, giving big corporations and billionaires a kind of “license to pollute.”
The global “carbon market” has established new ways for economic elites to grab land, profit from dubious technologies and attempt to corner the market on literally any activity that produces carbon, potentially encompassing “virtually every human activity,” in Gates’ words.
History of net zero and its potential for abuse
The concept of net zero existed primarily in academic papers and reports until it was incorporated into the 2015 Paris Agreement, at the urging of powerful advocates. Since then, the world’s commitment to “net” zero has exploded.
Shiva recently told Russell Brand, “I watched Bill Gates take over the U.N. [United Nations] system with the climate summit in Paris in 2015.”
And in another interview, Shiva said this about Gates.
“He cooked up a word, which I had never heard before that, called ‘net zero.’ And he said we have to solve climate problems by net zero.
“It doesn’t mean we get rid of emissions. He flies in a private jet and has all the private jet services of the world. He says it doesn’t mean we will stop polluting. He says it just means we have to find other people’s lands for offsets to absorb our pollution.”
Here is how net zero is supposed to work.
In Article 4 of The Paris Agreement, the parties agreed that sources of emissions must be “balanced” by “removals” of greenhouse gases.
Article 6 referred to “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes,” meaning carbon credits that can be bought, sold and traded across international borders.
The Paris Agreement has led to the emergence of a global “carbon market” in which governments and private actors buy and sell credits by funding activities that reduce or avoid carbon emissions, or those that remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Removal credits can be obtained through technological methods of removal such as “direct air capture” — a technology as yet unproven at scale — or through land-based methods such as the preservation of forests and sequestering of carbon in farmland soil.
Big emitters that obtain credits can use them to “offset” their emissions, so they don’t actually have to make any cuts.
This idea of achieving “net zero” via a global market for carbon credits was a departure from an earlier understanding of how climate change should be addressed, according to Shiva.
“Stopping the pollution that is driving climate chaos and climate destabilization is an ecological obligation, both to protect the rights of the Earth as a living organism and the human rights of those lives we are losing because of climate catastrophes,” Shiva told The Defender.
“That means we must move towards ‘real zero’ in terms of emissions. Since the .1% is responsible for most of the pollution, the polluters must stop polluting, and as was agreed in Rio at the Earth Summit, polluters must pay,” she said.
Net zero turned this logic on its head, giving big polluters the right to financially buy up “emissions rights.” This is how carbon credits became “Wall Street’s favorite climate solution.”
“The former Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, now heads the U.N. Net Zero initiative,” Shiva said, “which is being described as ‘changing the plumbing of the whole financial system forever.’”
With this kind of financial power behind it, the global drive for net zero has taken off since the 2015 Paris Agreement. By 2019, countries covering one-sixth of the global economy had made net zero pledges, and by 2021, net zero pledges covered nine-tenths of the global economy.
In July, Gates said the next U.N. climate conference — COP28, to be held Nov. 30-Dec. 12 — “will be a critical opportunity for the world’s leaders to come together and take real steps to accelerate our path to net-zero carbon emissions.”
— Bill Gates (@BillGates) July 26, 2023
‘Largely worthless’ carbon offsets and ‘dangerous’ geoengineering
Estimates are that the market for “carbon credits” could be $100 billion by mid-century.
Carbon credits have come under greater scrutiny in the last few years, however, as big corporations have bought large amounts of them in a public-relations effort to improve their environmental reputations. Critics call this “greenwashing.”
“The forest carbon offsets approved by the world’s leading certifier and used by Disney, Shell, Gucci, and other big corporations are largely worthless,” according to an investigation led by The Guardian.
Nevertheless, the push to achieve net zero by allowing big emitters to obtain carbon credits has picked up pace.
President Joe Biden’s signature climate change law, the Inflation Reduction Act, was a financial “bonanza for the carbon capture industry,” according to Time, even though technological methods of “carbon capture” have never been proven to be economically feasible at scale.
Geoengineering — directly manipulating the Earth’s climate — is another potential source of carbon credits. Some startups are already trying to market geoengineering carbon credits with various schemes like spraying chemicals into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight or sequestering carbon in seagrasses.
While geoengineering is considered to be dangerous and premature at best, the White House nevertheless issued a report in June recommending that some forms of geoengineering should be studied, and mentioning the possible future involvement of “private actors.”
Buying up carbon credits — a ‘global gold rush’
In contrast to speculative and unproven technological methods of carbon removal, land-based carbon capture in forests and farmlands can sequester carbon on a significant scale.
With the race to acquire available carbon credits by 2050, there is a huge financial incentive for big players in the global economy to buy up land capable of producing carbon credits in a sort of global “gold rush.” Only those who own the limited number of land-based credits will be able to claim the right to emit greenhouse gases.
The global rush for land-based carbon credits was predicted by when the goal of net zero was first introduced. Some environmental activists were concerned the less-developed countries of the global south would be targeted.
Those predictions have turned out to be accurate.
The African nation of Liberia just announced it is conceding about 10% of its land — over 2 million acres of forest — to a company from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) called Blue Carbon LLC. This “transfer of pollution rights,” as the parties refer to it, will allow the UAE to “meet its climate commitments.” (UAE will be the site of the U.N.’s CoP28 later this year.)
Blue Carbon is in similar talks with Zambia and Tanzania.
Last year, Nigeria granted access to over 4 million acres of land to a U.S.-based company, African Agriculture Inc. The company plans to plant trees and then sell the carbon credits to high emitters.
Critics call deals like this “carbon colonialism,” because land-based carbon-credit schemes take land access away from local people and grant it to foreign governments and international financial interests. Moreover, the environmental benefits are often overblown.
In July, French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Papua New Guinea to promote both a large conservation project and a $10 billion Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) investment in the country by French energy giant TotalEnergies.
A TotalEnergies executive claimed the carbon credits from the conservation project would be used to “offset” emissions from the LNG project.
The land rush for “carbon credits” is not limited to developing countries — it’s been making its way into industrialized Western countries.
“Scotland is on the global frontlines of The Great Net-Zero Land Grab,” reads one headline about multinational corporations and investment funds that have been pouring money into rural Scottish land, including the country’s carbon-rich peatlands.
In the Netherlands, despite fierce resistance from farmers, the Dutch government has been moving forward with plans to expropriate up to 3,000 farms to meet the country’s climate goals.
Dutch farmers are being targeted for a land grab, Shiva said.
Perhaps not coincidentally, in 2021, the Dutch bank Rabobank established the first pilot projects of the Rabo Carbon Bank. This followed a report that year by the European Commission laying out profitable strategies for “carbon farming.”
According to Rabo Carbon Bank’s CEO Barbara Baarsma, “the market potential is enormous.”
The drive to shut down farms can only be understood within the larger context of this potentially “enormous” global carbon market, with its voracious demand for land-based carbon credits.
A single oil company, Shell, would need land 3 times the size of the Netherlands for its net zero plans, according to some estimates.
The land-based credits that could be generated by shutting down thousands of Dutch farms could eventually be bought by investors, and then credited to big polluters elsewhere within the global market who could use them to “offset” their continuing emissions.
This dynamic may help explain why Gates bought 250,000 acres of U.S. farmland in recent years, a subject of much speculation as people wonder why Gates made himself America’s biggest “farmer.” Such a huge amount of land could position him to take advantage of the global carbon market.
As net-zero land grabs push out small and medium-sized food producers, people like Gates who are heavily invested in high-tech food companies that purport to be climate-friendly — fake meat producers, for example — are able to seize market share and take further control of the food supply.
Shiva said net-zero land grabs help bring about the vision of a high-tech food future promoted by Gates and Silicon Valley investors: “farming without farmers” and “food without farms.”
Food is Gates’ “new empire,” according to Shiva. His plans include “controlling land, controlling seeds, destroying real food to replace it with lab food, and eliminating farmers from farming altogether,” using patented seeds and various “climate-smart” technologies.
How far can the abuse of ‘net zero’ be taken in the future?
Beyond land grabs and dubious techno-fixes, the attempt by economic elites to corner the market on carbon credits has additional implications for the future.
In a future in which each individual citizen may have a personal carbon allowance — an idea that has been floated by some activists, politicians and international institutions — allowing carbon credits to be bought and sold would give economic elites a way to buy up the future “consumption rights” of everyone else.
Here is how Rabo Carbon Bank’s Baarsma, a World Economic Forum (WEF) “agenda contributor,” said a personal carbon allowance would work:
“If I want to fly, I buy some carbon emission rights from someone who can’t afford to fly, for example … Or if someone lives in a small house, he can sell his carbon emission rights to someone who lives in a big house. This way, poor people can benefit from the green economy.”
Although Baarsma tried to put a positive spin on the idea, allowing ultra-wealthy individuals and large corporations to purchase “carbon emission rights” from the poor and the middle class would be to allow the top 1% to buy up people’s future “consumption rights” for anything that produces carbon — including everything from housing and farming to transportation and travel.
Decentralizing is key to upending net zero
Net zero “is not about healing the earth and regenerating her ecological systems and processes. It is not about stopping pollution. It is about continuing to pollute and finding new ways to pollute,” Shiva told The Defender.
When it comes to land, Shiva advocates for food sovereignty: control of food and farmland by farmers and local peoples engaged in traditional, non-industrial, regenerative methods of agriculture.
“We need to support small farms that care for the earth, for all life and produce biodiverse, healthy, fresh, environmentally friendly food for all,” she said.
Small farmers using ecological methods stand in contrast to the billionaires and big corporations using net zero as an excuse to grab land and profit from carbon credits, controlling the food supply using industrial methods that are harmful to the environment and human health.
The key to an authentic, grassroots, ecologically sensible response to their efforts is to decentralize power, Shiva and other critics of net zero have suggested.
Financial schemes like net zero that pretend to address climate change, but in reality allow the top 1% to concentrate power over farmland and food, profit from dubious technologies, and exercise financial control over human activities that produce carbon — “virtually every human activity,” in Gates’ words — must be rejected.
A “shift from globalization driven by multinational corporations to progressive localization of our economies has become an ecological and social imperative,” Shiva wrote, “to protect both people’s lives and the environment.”