Why Net-Zero Carbon by 2050 is a Fantasy.

All new buildings must operate at net zero carbon from 2030

Net zero carbon buildings must become standard business practice as soon as

possible, so we build right from the start; avoid the need for future major retrofits;

and prevent the lock-in of carbon emitting systems for decades to come.

100% of buildings must operate at net zero carbon by 2050

Existing buildings require not only an acceleration of current renovation rates,

but these renovations must be completed to a net zero carbon standard so that

all buildings are net zero carbon in operation by 2050. (World Green Building Council, 2017)

How Much Carbon Does Your Building Put into the Atmosphere?

Architects love the latest buzz words. Net-zero has become one of them. As the term is being used differently in different disciplines it takes on entirely different meanings. The original meaning by the IPCC, U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was to stop carbon dioxide emission into the atmosphere. Architects have latched onto this word and have tried to repurpose it for ‘green’ building construction. Unfortunately, all forms of modern building construction require carbon emissions. Buckminster Fuller famously said, ‘how much does your building weigh?’. A question in our age of climate change would be, “how many tons of carbon dioxide does your building put into the atmosphere?”. Concrete, the most prolific of the modern building materials creates about 6% of global carbon emissions. For every ton of steel created, almost two tons of CO2 emissions are put into the atmosphere. Glass, aluminum, and plastics all use fossil fuels in their production. How is it possible to make a net-zero building? The answer is simple; redefine the definition of net-zero. Instead of identifying net-zero as carbon production, redefine it as energy consumption. Use renewable energy generation in the form of solar panels and use energy consumption metrics to lower the use of energy in the building. The Green Building Council has been doing this since the 1990s. These are pseudo-solutions. All produce more efficient buildings, but net-zero is impossible. Carbon production and energy consumption are two different metrics and are not equivalent.

The problem here is using carbon as a key metric. All human activity produces carbon dioxide. The modern city is based on CO2 production. Creating a metric around carbon is a stealth way of putting a metric on human ‘production’ in the Marxist sense of the word. Carbon sounds objectively scientific, but its use as ‘net-zero’ is a code word for Marxism’s capitalist ‘Production’ as the two concepts are the same. This imposes Marxist economic theory of production and consumption on climate change science. Where did this come from? The IPCC.

The IPCC defines net-zero as when carbon dioxide from anthropogenic sources is balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period. This definition is problematic as there is not an objective scientific metric. What does ‘anthropogenic CO2 removal’ mean? Technical jargon such as ‘decarbonization’ and ‘negative emissions’ are socially constructed concepts, not scientific ones. An objective scientific goal would be to keep CO2 levels in the atmosphere under 400 ppm, for example. To see the flaw in this argument we can break it down into a scientific proof: if CO2 emissions by human activity is brought to zero, then global warming will stop. If the social goal is reached, then the objective goal will be reached. Reducing anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will not necessarily reduce global warming. Global warming may be ‘baked in’ already.

Net-zero by the IPCC is a social goal and would be defined by each country in setting its own national goals for what net-zero means. One country may have no manufacturing, so their emissions would be low, versus another country who has considerable manufacturing, and their emissions would be high. If the manufacturing country was shipping its products to a country with no manufacturing, how is this social goal equally distributed? The same can be true for agriculture and other carbon dioxide producing human activities.

This wrong thinking manifests itself more dramatically when scientists and researchers try to use social concepts like ‘net-zero’ to make informed policy decisions. Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts (Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastruture, and Impacts, 2020) is a report created by Princeton University in 2020 is an example of how experts and scientists get climate action so wrong. Their motivation in creating this report is that government and corporate net-zero-by-2050 pledge give little detail on execution, costs, and impacts. The report seeks to give specific actions and policy “pathways” that can be followed to get to net-zero by 2050. These steps include:

Reports like this attempt to take social goals, like net-zero-by-2050, and turn it into technological action by using scientific analysis. Science is used to ‘prove’ social goals like net-zero are implementable. This is a more advance form of ‘lying with statistics’[1] as it appears the social goal is scientific. ‘Trust the science’ but ignore the fact that net-zero is not a scientific metric. By misstating the problem, the solutions too can be fabricated. This report only looks at the United States. Currently the United States creates less than 15% of the global CO2 emissions while China creates almost 30%. While the United States is slowly decommissioning coal fire plants, China is building more than 50 a year, and has done so for the last 20 years. By 2100 it is projected that the United States will only create 5% of the global CO2 emissions, while countries and regions with larger populations like China, Africa, and India will contribute 95% of global emissions. Ignoring this most basic fact loses the forest for the trees. The premise of the report does nothing to address global causes of climate change. The single biggest issue confronting the world today is how does the developing world modernize and lift the poor out of poverty without creating industrialized cities that need coal and fossil fuels? This is the single most important climate change issue today.

Changing electricity consumption patterns treats the symptoms and does not propose a viable solution to the root cause. Electric cars do not solve the problem that cities are designed around automobiles, parking lots, and roads. Transportation patterns should be designed to eliminate the need for cars, not change from one form of energy consumption to another. Proposing that single-family homes should covert to more efficient heat pumps instead of air conditioning does not address the problems inherent with single-family residential zoning of the much of the United States. These solutions make energy consumption more efficient, but it is consumption non-the-less.

Clean electricity proposed in the Net-Zero America report mostly comes from wind and solar. There are several problems with this approach as we would need to create three to five times the power lines we currently have specifically for clean electricity. How is this ‘sustainable’ or more efficient? Even worse, the wind and solar footprint would be 10% of the current United States land mass. Are we to destroy natural environments to build roads and infrastructure to support power lines, wind and solar? These clean electricity proposals do not make sense from an environmental, economic, or land use perspective.

CO2 capture that is absolutely needed for net-zero makes no sense from and economic point of view. Capitalism takes a natural resource and creates an exchange-value for the material. Capturing CO2 has no exchange-value and would cost huge amounts of money and resources for no human benefit. The government would need to subsidize it through taxpayer funds, or force corporations to pay for it. What happens in the future when the United States is not the richest country in the world and cannot afford to pay? Will the American people still want to pay for carbon capture when other countries in the world contribute more carbon dioxide and do not pay for its capture? Will corporations simply off-shore their operations so they do not need to pay a carbon-tax? Carbon capture makes little sense in global capitalist world.

Enhancing land sinks sounds like a good idea but turns the entire natural environment into a resource for capturing carbon dioxide. Forests and other natural environments can be used as carbon sinks but turning them into ‘machines for CO2 absorption’ force natural environments to be utilitarian objects for human use and manipulation. Some natural environments should remain natural and not be subjugated for human utility. For example, in the Western United States forests burn naturally. To make them into carbon sinks the natural process of burning would need to be eliminated.

Net-zero as a social narrative does not address human ecology issues in their complexity. The real problem with net-zero is it defines the problem as one of balancing production with consumption. When net-zero experts measure the city, they look at consumption patterns: geographic, industrial, or products. When policy makers use net-zero, they try to limit these forms of consumption through laws and policies. Instead of addressing the origins of the problem they focus on the symptoms. Unless we can accurately diagnose the problem, we cannot propose viable solutions. The goal has been given to us by our experts and policy makers and we must conform to this goal no matter how absurd.

Architects and institutions like the Green Building Council have many good solutions to create ‘green’ buildings and urban environments. Limiting the metric of a ‘green’ building to net-zero carbon emissions stops any analysis of the real issues at hand. The real problem is how do we build modern cities in the industrialized and developing world sustainably? We must focus on this real problem and not get caught up in socially constructed narratives such as net-zero.

[1] How to Lie With Statistics is a 1993 book by Darrell Huff.

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Jaime Roberts

Architect writing about environmental design in an age of climate change.