UKHACC and many other organisations within health and climate have been calling for or planning to achieve net zero targets. At the same time, there are a growing number of voices critiquing these types of targets. This blog explores the diverse views for and against net zero.

Where does the idea come from?

At its core, the idea of net zero is simple. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for climate change, therefore to reduce the impacts of climate change we must ensure that we emit no more carbon than we can remove from the atmosphere.

What are the flaws in this idea?

While traditionally carbon sequestration has been a natural process (occurring, for example, in forests), the latest ideas and plans for carbon sequestration often rely on technologies that have not yet been developed. This allows decisions to be made that delay action on climate change, on the assumption that we will later be able to remedy the emissions we are about to create. 

The Climate Change Committee considers the advancement of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to be essential. They highlight in a 2019 report that, while progress on CCS has been slow, at the time of publication there were 43 projects underway or operating across the world (though none of them in the UK). The CCC acknowledges that calls for bioenergy generation with carbon capture and storage, or for reforestation, could lead to conflicts around land use including pressure on food production. 

The likelihood of carbon capture and storage being able to meet the full scale of the challenge is heavily contested by many scientists. A recent article critiquing the feasibility of carbon capture and storage on a global scale also highlights challenges around land and water use, amongst others. 

A recent report by the campaigning groups Global Accountability, the Global Forest Coalition and Friends of the Earth identifies a number of other problems. Firstly, the fact that many CCS approaches are either unfeasible, or are used as an excuse to exploit additional oil reserves. It finds problems related to traditional offset schemes – criticising reforestation through single species plantations at the expense of indigenous communities, which results from a focus on carbon removal. The group has assessed a number of corporate plans for net zero by 2050, noting that many don’t require any cuts to emissions for several decades.

Carbon sinks at risk

Alongside this debate about whether net zero can be viable, we are seeing challenges around our existing carbon sinks. For example, a recent study showed that over the last decade the Amazon lost more carbon than it gained. Seagrass ecosystems – which contribute significantly to global carbon storage – are also threatened, and at risk of releasing carbon into the atmosphere. 

Can we ever get to absolute zero?

Some research suggests that reaching absolute zero is indeed possible, and can be achieved while capitalising on opportunities in business, education and governance amongst others. This research outlines quite clearly the major actions that would be required to achieve this, and the timing of these actions over the coming decades. It is clear that this would result in significant changes to how we live. 

Alternatives

Others have called for separate targets on reductions in emissions and negative emissions. Advocates of this approach feel these targets would be more likely to lead to positive action to mitigate climate change rather than a reliance on negative emissions to compensate for the continuation of polluting activities. However, they also recognise that this approach could complicate things when it comes to approaches such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. 

What does this mean for healthcare?

Can healthcare itself ever get to absolute zero? While it may be tempting to give healthcare a free pass – healthcare, after all, is vital to all of us – we must resist the urge to do so. It is one of the greatest ironies that healthcare continues to do good, while doing harm through its associated greenhouse gas emissions. Surely, there are specific aspects of healthcare that are fairly unique in terms of the exposure to infectious agents, the need for sterile procedures and or the need for specific materials. It is clear that these will require significant innovation to discover the solutions. It would, however, be a failure of the imagination to simply accept that these cannot be replaced with significantly more sustainable options. 

This optimism is reflected in the NHS England Net Zero report – which recognises that a significant proportion of emissions from healthcare will only be eliminated through innovation. Artificial intelligence diagnostics reducing the need for biopsies, and 3D printing reducing the need for transporting equipment are two of the current frontiers, and no doubt many more advances are around the corner. We may not know yet how we could reach net zero in healthcare but this does not mean that we can’t achieve it in the next twenty years. We only need to look back at the last twenty years to see the scale of change that this length of time can bring. 

Conclusions

Personally, I am not a fan of long term targets. While they can clearly show us the scale of actions required to achieve any level of change and allow us to measure specific aspects of progress, they arguably distract us from the overwhelming inevitable truth of climate change and biodiversity loss: we need to be doing all we can, right now, to be addressing these issues. Arguably, measuring progress on these is simple – are we acting to the full extent possible, and are we seeing a huge year on year decrease in greenhouse gas emissions with concurrent improvements in biodiversity? 

That is not to say the debate about net zero is not important. Having a clear grasp of these underlying issues can help us to assess whether specific net zero plans are credible based on the assumptions they make and the urgency with which they include major actions to turn the tide. Effective scrutiny of these plans is even more important when we consider the huge vested interests at play. We should ask ourselves, what type of net zero target is this? Is it one which seeks to delay climate action? Is it one which relies on technological innovation to address parts of the solution? To what extent does it rely on untested technologies? Can we make the difference we need to make right now, while waiting for innovation to appear? We might thus differentiate between different types of net zero plans, with a more nuanced position on the issue. Clearly, we all have a part to play in addressing climate change. Let us do all we can to do so.


Dr Yannish Naik
Interim Director, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change

Acknowledgements – the numerous people on twitter who shared materials after I asked a question about net zero. Responsibility for mistakes lies with me. 

June 2021

Featured photo by Shikozan (Creative Commons) via Climate Visuals

UKHACC and many other organisations within health and climate have been calling for or planning to achieve net zero targets. At the same time, there are a growing number of voices critiquing these types of targets. This blog explores the diverse views for and against net zero.

Where does the idea come from?

At its core, the idea of net zero is simple. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for climate change, therefore to reduce the impacts of climate change we must ensure that we emit no more carbon than we can remove from the atmosphere.

What are the flaws in this idea?

While traditionally carbon sequestration has been a natural process (occurring, for example, in forests), the latest ideas and plans for carbon sequestration often rely on technologies that have not yet been developed. This allows decisions to be made that delay action on climate change, on the assumption that we will later be able to remedy the emissions we are about to create. 

The Climate Change Committee considers the advancement of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to be essential. They highlight in a 2019 report that, while progress on CCS has been slow, at the time of publication there were 43 projects underway or operating across the world (though none of them in the UK). The CCC acknowledges that calls for bioenergy generation with carbon capture and storage, or for reforestation, could lead to conflicts around land use including pressure on food production. 

The likelihood of carbon capture and storage being able to meet the full scale of the challenge is heavily contested by many scientists. A recent article critiquing the feasibility of carbon capture and storage on a global scale also highlights challenges around land and water use, amongst others. 

A recent report by the campaigning groups Global Accountability, the Global Forest Coalition and Friends of the Earth identifies a number of other problems. Firstly, the fact that many CCS approaches are either unfeasible, or are used as an excuse to exploit additional oil reserves. It finds problems related to traditional offset schemes – criticising reforestation through single species plantations at the expense of indigenous communities, which results from a focus on carbon removal. The group has assessed a number of corporate plans for net zero by 2050, noting that many don’t require any cuts to emissions for several decades.

Carbon sinks at risk

Alongside this debate about whether net zero can be viable, we are seeing challenges around our existing carbon sinks. For example, a recent study showed that over the last decade the Amazon lost more carbon than it gained. Seagrass ecosystems – which contribute significantly to global carbon storage – are also threatened, and at risk of releasing carbon into the atmosphere. 

Can we ever get to absolute zero?

Some research suggests that reaching absolute zero is indeed possible, and can be achieved while capitalising on opportunities in business, education and governance amongst others. This research outlines quite clearly the major actions that would be required to achieve this, and the timing of these actions over the coming decades. It is clear that this would result in significant changes to how we live. 

Alternatives

Others have called for separate targets on reductions in emissions and negative emissions. Advocates of this approach feel these targets would be more likely to lead to positive action to mitigate climate change rather than a reliance on negative emissions to compensate for the continuation of polluting activities. However, they also recognise that this approach could complicate things when it comes to approaches such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. 

What does this mean for healthcare?

Can healthcare itself ever get to absolute zero? While it may be tempting to give healthcare a free pass – healthcare, after all, is vital to all of us – we must resist the urge to do so. It is one of the greatest ironies that healthcare continues to do good, while doing harm through its associated greenhouse gas emissions. Surely, there are specific aspects of healthcare that are fairly unique in terms of the exposure to infectious agents, the need for sterile procedures and or the need for specific materials. It is clear that these will require significant innovation to discover the solutions. It would, however, be a failure of the imagination to simply accept that these cannot be replaced with significantly more sustainable options. 

This optimism is reflected in the NHS England Net Zero report – which recognises that a significant proportion of emissions from healthcare will only be eliminated through innovation. Artificial intelligence diagnostics reducing the need for biopsies, and 3D printing reducing the need for transporting equipment are two of the current frontiers, and no doubt many more advances are around the corner. We may not know yet how we could reach net zero in healthcare but this does not mean that we can’t achieve it in the next twenty years. We only need to look back at the last twenty years to see the scale of change that this length of time can bring. 

Conclusions

Personally, I am not a fan of long term targets. While they can clearly show us the scale of actions required to achieve any level of change and allow us to measure specific aspects of progress, they arguably distract us from the overwhelming inevitable truth of climate change and biodiversity loss: we need to be doing all we can, right now, to be addressing these issues. Arguably, measuring progress on these is simple – are we acting to the full extent possible, and are we seeing a huge year on year decrease in greenhouse gas emissions with concurrent improvements in biodiversity? 

That is not to say the debate about net zero is not important. Having a clear grasp of these underlying issues can help us to assess whether specific net zero plans are credible based on the assumptions they make and the urgency with which they include major actions to turn the tide. Effective scrutiny of these plans is even more important when we consider the huge vested interests at play. We should ask ourselves, what type of net zero target is this? Is it one which seeks to delay climate action? Is it one which relies on technological innovation to address parts of the solution? To what extent does it rely on untested technologies? Can we make the difference we need to make right now, while waiting for innovation to appear? We might thus differentiate between different types of net zero plans, with a more nuanced position on the issue. Clearly, we all have a part to play in addressing climate change. Let us do all we can to do so.


Dr Yannish Naik
Interim Director, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change

Acknowledgements – the numerous people on twitter who shared materials after I asked a question about net zero. Responsibility for mistakes lies with me. 

June 2021

Featured photo by Shikozan (Creative Commons) via Climate Visuals