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We need urgent action to phase-out fossil fuels and cut emissions fast.

Yet as nations began wrapping up the difficult talks at the UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26 in Glasgow, false solutions, such as net-zero offsets and carbon markets ended up on the agenda. Now climate negotiators and youth activists are debating net-zero and what it will mean for years to come. 

Net-zero refers to the goal of balancing the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by a country or corporation by “offsetting” those amounts through forest preservation, other land-based carbon sinks or direct carbon capture technology (which is not proven to work). 

We’ve been introducing the term “real zero” this year. Essentially, it means commitments from nations or companies to end the burning of fossil fuels, and the abandonment of carbon offset credit trading and an acceleration toward fossil-free energy as soon as possible. No business as usual. No tricky fancy accounting. No burning now and pay for it later. 

The terminology can be confusing though so we wanted to ask you ourselves what you think about net zero and carbon offsets. Greenpeace International distributed a global online poll from 27 October to 7 November 2021 in eight languages -English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Danish, Chinese, and Hebrew. 2681 people responded from more than 60 countries.

Results showed that only about half of those people could correctly define “net zero” or “carbon offsets.” Some confused net zero as the actual goal of bringing absolute carbon emissions to zero – a lofty but difficult goal. 

When asked “When should nations achieve net-zero emissions?” 77.5% of respondents answered, “as soon as possible.” Only 14.7% said by 2030 and 3.5% said by 2050 and 1% said later than 2050. The result suggests that the declarations of nations pledging to achieve net-zero carbon neutrality by 2050 or even later, are largely out of step with public opinion. Once the correct definition of “net-zero” and “carbon offsets credits” were defined, when asked “Do you support achieving “net-zero” through “carbon offset credits?,” 81.1% answered “no,” 18.8% answered “yes.”

The question “Do you trust a company that boasts about its net-zero pledge but then continues to burn fossil energy or increase their emissions footprint, saying they’ll achieve neutrality through carbon offsets credits?” 97.8% of respondents answered they would not trust a company doing this. 2.2% said yes. 

This is a warning to companies jumping on the net-zero bandwagon without disclosing serious plans to curb fossil fuel usage. Shareholders might be fooled and relieved, but respondents are to be catching on to how disingenuous this clever greenwashing actually is.

Google Trends indicates there has been a significant increase in the search of “net-zero” as a term in the past four years. Why? Well in part because dozens of large corporations have announced net-zero commitments since 2019, to win favor with the climate-conscious.  As of February 2021, 92 name brands have made such announcements including BP, British Airways, Facebook, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Shell, TotalEnergies, and more.

Equally confusing is the term “carbon offsets” which is a way of measuring the carbon mitigation potential through credits, which in theory will cancel out past GHG emissions emitted. What’s buried in the lead is that carbon offsets are traded on a massive scale. Through mandatory and voluntary carbon offset schemes, rich polluters spew gigatons of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere each year and then purchase carbon offset credits so that their emissions are canceled on paper. 

Some are tied to renewable energy projects, but many others are tied to cordoning off natural carbon sinks like forests or peatlands, which often displace local communities who rely upon it. Carbon offset trading is a way to commodify nature and allows wealthier, higher emitting nations to pay to pollute.

Poll respondents made their views clear: when asked “Which solution sounds like a more effective way to solve the climate crisis?,” 93.9% answered, “Real zero without offsets – Rapidly phasing out all fossil fuel burning and greenhouse gases through transitioning to clean energy and sustainable food systems.” Only 6.1% answered “Net zero with offsets – Gradually phasing out fossil fuel emissions over decades and offsetting carbon footprints by use of nature-based offset credits.”

When asked to rank who you “trust most to offer credible solutions to the climate crisis?,” climate activists and nonprofit organizations ranked as “most trusted.” National governments and corporations were ranked as “least trusted.” The lacking commitments to climate action coming out of COP26 underscore this point.

The question now is this: when will those who make decisions finally listen?  

The people have spoken: they can see through the dangerous lies of offsets and are ready to speak up about real zero. We need real climate action now, not greenwashing. We need real zero.