Policy and Advocacy

‘Net zero’ - a dangerous distraction gambling with our planet’s future

Lucy Njeri lives in the Rift Valley in Kenya. In late May her seeds began to germinate when the rains arrived. But instead of the expected long rainy season, the rains stopped after just a week. Since then, each day she scans the horizon looking for rain. The bean crop is already ruined. She has some faint hopes for the maize, but only if the rains come soon. If not, they won't be able to plant again until next year and there will be widespread hunger.

Climate change for us is real. It is already here. It is causing great hunger.

~ Lucy Njeri

Every week a new country or corporation announces a target to achieve ‘net zero’ carbon emissions as their contribution to stopping climate breakdown. While these look good on paper, and are often reported uncritically in the media, without clear definition they risk being dangerous distractions that gamble with our planet’s future.

While in theory achieving net zero emissions is a worthy North Star, it’s striking how much that one small word ‘net’ can obscure. ‘Net zero emissions’ and ‘zero emissions’ do not mean the same thing. Instead, in many cases, net zero targets are a green-washing exercise that allows for business as usual.

Net zero targets have become popular because they give government and corporate leaders what they are desperate for. A convenient way to look like they are taking dramatic action to stop the climate crisis while largely failing to do so. 

Photo: Andy Aitchison / Oxfam

What is needed is an immediate, dramatic and irreversible reduction in the billions of tonnes of carbon countries and corporations are pumping into our atmosphere on a daily basis. To meet the Paris targets, by 2030 the world collectively should be on track to have cut carbon emissions by almost half, with the sharpest cuts being made by the biggest emitters. On current plans, we are on track to only have reduced emissions by one percent compared to 2010 levels.

Later this year, governments will come together in Glasgow for the follow-up climate summit to the 2015 Paris meeting. If we are to save our planet, and prevent millions of lives being lost, it is vital that governments and corporations are not allowed to get away with vague 'net zero' targets. They must be asked continuously and relentlessly what their plans are to cut their own carbon emissions.

Net zero targets are also risky because instead of focusing on cutting carbon emissions, for example rather than rapidly ending the use of fossil fuels, they rely instead on using other methods to remove carbon from the atmosphere. This can allow countries and corporations to continue to pollute, as the millions of tonnes of carbon emissions their factories and power plants produce will somehow then be removed from the atmosphere, cancelling out their pollution and supposedly achieving ‘net zero'.

The problem is this removal of carbon either relies on virtually unproven new technologies, or on a level of land use that is completely impossible and would lead to mass hunger and displacement of people across the world. Despite the buzz devoted to new technologies (that will somehow rescue us from the need to stop belching CO2 into the atmosphere) none have yet proven possible to use at scale.

The only proven way to remove carbon from the atmosphere is to use land to do so - by growing billions of trees and storing carbon in trees and soil. While stopping deforestation and sustainably restoring and managing lands wherever possible is of course a good thing to do and brings enormous environmental and social benefits, it is mathematically impossible to plant enough trees to meet the combined 'net zero' targets announced by governments and corporations, as there is simply not enough land to do this.

Land is a finite resource that is a vital lifeline for growing food. It is central to the lives and livelihoods of millions of small farmers and local communities around the planet.

We have calculated that the total amount of land required for planned carbon removal could potentially be five times the size of India, or the equivalent of all the farmland on the planet.

Our analysis also shows that the net zero targets of just four of the big oil and gas producers alone could require an area of land twice the size of the UK.

If the oil and gas sector as a whole adopted similar net zero targets, it could end up requiring land that is nearly half the size of the United States.

There is a very real risk that the explosion in 'net zero' commitments will fuel a new surge in demand for land, particularly in low-and middle-income countries, which would lead to mass displacement and hunger.  In India, for example, as part of an afforestation drive, traditional lands have been fenced off, and communities who have rights to use this land have been forcibly evicted and left homeless. These conflicts are impacting nearly half a million tribal and forest-dwelling people.

Aguiratou Ouedraogo is a 39 year farmer and mother. She fetches water from a well to water her market garden crops, with the help of another farmer with whom she shares the agricultural plot. Photo: Matias Tellez/Oxfam.

Instead of using land as a carbon farm that helps big emitters sound good while sidestepping the actual hard work required to cut emissions, we need to manage land in ways that tackle climate change and hunger together, while strengthening the rights and resilience of communities reliant on it for both their food and economic security.

It is clear to us all that climate change has already begun, and unless drastic action is taken now a future of terrible hunger, extreme temperatures, floods, storms and droughts is a certainty.

But we can still stop this.

At the Glasgow Climate Summit, real, transparent, concrete and timebound cuts to carbon can be agreed for 2030.

A forest of flimsy net zero commitments for 2050 and beyond risks letting governments and corporations off the hook, substituting the illusion of action for the hard work that must be done immediately if we are to avert climate disaster. 

Our demands

  • A much stronger focus on cutting carbon emissions in the near term (by 2030). Unless the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide take urgent action to cut emissions by half by the end of the decade, runaway climate breakdown will become inevitable.
  • That the G20 prioritises ambitious climate action in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow to ensure that global heating is kept below 1.5°C.
  • That companies cut emissions in their own operations and supply chains first and foremost. Ambitious action to cut emissions by 2030 requires phasing out support for new fossil fuel production. The fossil fuel industry cannot use 'net zero' as a prop for continuing business as usual.
  • Transparent targets that distinguish between reducing and removing carbon, instead of blurring the boundaries with short-term (2030), medium- (2040) and long-term targets.
  • That land use must ensure zero hunger. Land and nature are important parts of the climate solution, but where we do use land for climate mitigation, it must prioritise food security and build the resilience of small-scale farmers who rely on land. Nature-based solutions must strengthen the rights and livelihoods of local communities and protect ecosystems, and be subject to strong social and environmental safeguards that ensure that local communities, Indigenous people and frontline defenders have a seat at the table.
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Call for Irish government to lead in its response to the refugee situation in Afghanistan.

In response to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan Oxfam Ireland, as part of a group of 12 organisations working on Migrant, Asylum and Refugee rights, has written to the Irish government calling for Ireland to lead in its response to the refugee situation in Afghanistan. A copy of the letter is available here.

Welcoming the initial commitment to offer 150 people humanitarian admission to Ireland, plus commitments to prioritise family reunification the letter recommends other important actions. These include:

  • Use the unfilled resettlement places from 2020 and 2021 to resettle Afghan refugees
  • Increase the number of humanitarian admission visas given to people at risk of persecution in Afghanistan
  • Ensure international protection is provided to Afghan protection applicants currently in Ireland through an expedited process
  • Fast track family reunion applications and broaden criteria
  • Ensure Afghan people have access to the international protection process in Ireland

Oxfam Ireland and organisations working on migrant, asylum and refugee rights in Ireland believe Ireland can continue to show strong humanitarian leadership on this issue, through membership of the Security Council, and other diplomatic channels. However, this needs to be backed up by concrete actions, domestically and internationally.

Ireland can use its existing resettlement programme to resettle Afghan refugees. According to UNHCR there are currently 96,000 Afghan people in neighbouring countries in need of protection. There are at least 1,100 unfilled resettlement places from 2020 and 2021. We are recommending that at least a 1,000 Afghan refugees are resettled.

We can also expedite applications from Afghan people in Ireland and provide them international protection. There are currently around 211 Afghan people living in Direct Provision.

Family reunification can also be fast tracked so family members, many of whom are likely to be in danger, can leave.

Approximately 97 Afghan people were refused leave to land in Ireland between 1 January 2020 and 31 May 2021, people in this situation need to be given access to the protection process if needed.

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Ten takeaways from our new sustainable food systems report

21 July 2021

Today, we launched a new joint report with Trócaire entitled Sustainable Food Systems: Steps Ireland can take to become a global leader.

The document highlights rising global food insecurity and the urgency of delivering on the right to adequate food for all in sustainable ways. It also takes a closer look at the Irish government’s ambition to become a champion of fair and sustainable food systems on the global stage and offers pathways for how it can achieve this goal.

At more than 100 pages long, there’s a lot to digest in this report, but these 10 takeaways should give you a flavour of our findings:


Agriculture and food systems urgently need to be transformed to reduce the threat to communities already at risk from the climate and biodiversity emergencies; land-use competition, and conflict.


Moving towards sustainable food systems needs investment and strategies based on social equity; women’s empowerment; economic security; environmental regeneration, and resilience in the face of climate change and other shocks.


We need binding legislation if we want to ensure the agri-food sector is fulfilling its human rights and environmental obligations throughout its value chain – this is something Ireland can and should champion on the global stage.


Only a small portion of current official development assistance (ODA) spending on food and nutrition is directed toward sustainable agriculture projects. ODA support for food and nutrition security should be more clearly directed toward sustainable or agroecological initiatives.


Increasing the proportion of ODA spending used to support sustainable agriculture initiatives can move us in the right direction and ensure the communities Oxfam and Trócaire work with have the tools to adapt and build climate-resilient livelihoods.

Anna James from Tanzania holds some tomato seedlings she has grown. Photo: Bill Marwa/Oxfam


A national sustainable food systems body should be established to provide space for the voices of all stakeholders – including the most marginalised in Irish society – to be heard and integrated into decision-making.


Narratives claiming that Ireland’s food is ‘produced sustainably’ or that we’re making great progress towards ‘driving sustainable food production’ are difficult to validate – highlighting the need for transparent ways to measure progress on the transition to sustainable food production.


Irish farmers aren’t being adequately supported to transition to more sustainable agricultural methods and approaches. In some cases, they’re even penalised for their efforts to support biodiversity. We need incentivised schemes to support farmers to develop sustainable practices.


Programmes with clear environmental and social sustainability objectives need to be scaled up, while there should be more investment in rural economies to help bolster the production and distribution of fresh, nutritious and local produce.


We should be bolstering local markets rather than putting them at risk. Take subsidised Irish milk powder exports to West Africa, for example, where local government officials, small-scale dairy owners and farmers argue that powdered imports are nutritionally inferior and environmentally damaging, and undermine local markets and dairy production.

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A shot at recovery

Measuring corporate commitments towards a free, fair, and accessible COVID-19 vaccine

Publication date: 22nd April

Covid-19 anywhere is Covid-19 everywhere. That’s why we need a People’s Vaccine: patent-free, mass produced, distributed fairly, and made available free of charge, to every individual, rich and poor alike, around the world. To protect everyone, everywhere, corporations must commit to openly sharing their vaccine technology to enable billions of doses to be made as soon as possible at the lowest possible price.

Amidst troubling opacity, especially on purchasing agreements and vaccine prices, we found that the commitments made by the five leading US-funded vaccine developers highlighted in this brief, from our colleagues in Oxfam America, are far from what is needed. To address this unprecedented global crisis, we need corporations and governments to do everything in their power to deliver a free, fair and accessible Covid-19 vaccine – a People’s Vaccine.

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5 ways the World Bank can promote a fairer and faster global vaccine roll-out

29 March 2021
By Katie Malouf Bous, Oxfam International’s Senior Policy Advisor for Public Services and International Financial Institutions & Anna Marriott, Oxfam International’s Health Policy Manager.

While wealthy nations have been vaccinating their citizens at a rate of one person per second over the last month, the majority of developing countries have been unable to administer even a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Only three percent of people in these countries can hope to be vaccinated by mid-year, and only one fifth at best by the end of 2021.

Global efforts to improve access to vaccines through the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) COVAX facility have been welcome but far from enough. Developing countries remain at the back of the vaccine queue and pharmaceutical monopolies mean they are being shut out of the technology that would allow them to expand local manufacturing and produce more doses to scale up vaccination campaigns. This is the reality despite over $100 billion of taxpayers’ money being spent on vaccine research and development (R&D). 

This vaccine inequality is a moral stain. It is also a global public health risk — the longer it takes to vaccinate everyone, the more likely it is that vaccine-resistant variants will emerge and delay the world’s efforts to end this pandemic. And the economic impact of vaccine inequality is huge: the International Chamber of Commerce has put the global cost at $9 trillion, with half of this being absorbed by developing countries. The IMF has warned that income losses will be highest in developing nations because of unequal vaccine access.

In this context, the World Bank announced in October an envelope of $12 billion for developing countries to finance the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, aiming to support the vaccination of up to a billion people. This support is crucial. However, without addressing global vaccine supply constraints and high prices, weak healthcare systems, and pre-existing health inequalities, this will be an uphill battle. As the Bank’s vaccine projects move forward, we offer five recommendations for how it can support a fairer and quicker global vaccine roll-out including through its own program:

1. Countries should not be pushed further into debt to buy vaccines.
The Bank’s $12 billion program is urgently needed but follows its normal financing terms based on country income. Only the poorest countries at high risk of debt distress qualify for purely grants — otherwise low-income countries will get concessional loans or a mix of grants and loans, and middle-income countries will get market-rate loans. In order to pay for life-saving vaccines, countries are going further into debt at a time when they can least afford it. Stopping COVID-19 is a global public good that poor countries should not have to borrow for. Even before the pandemic 64 countries were spending more on debt repayments than on healthcare. Taking on more debt for vaccines could constrain countries’ ability to invest in their longer-term public healthcare systems to prevent and control future pandemics, and ensure health for all.

The Bank and its donors must urgently find ways to offer more debt-free financing to countries for the vaccine and for health care services. The accelerated IDA20 Replenishment process should be one important and timely vehicle to make commitments that address this pressing problem.

2. The Bank should push for structural solutions to low and unequal vaccine supply.
Our dependence on just a few pharmaceutical corporations who cannot make enough doses for everyone means that, even with the Bank’s financial support, countries are being charged far more than they can afford for far fewer doses than they need. At the price Uganda paid for the AstraZeneca vaccine ($7), it would cost more than double the country’s entire healthcare budget to vaccinate everyone. In this context the Bank’s $12 billion will be quickly used up on insufficient numbers of vaccines and with no spare change for roll-out. Moreover, unless supply constraints are tackled, people in developing countries will be waiting years without access.

The Bank should use its global voice and echo calls made by the WHO for urgently needed structural fixes including the waiving of intellectual property rules for COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments and the sharing of vaccine technology and know-how via the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (CTAP). Both are needed to unlock existing manufacturing capacity in developing countries and scale up production. The Bank can also play a major role in providing needed finance for more local R&D and manufacturing of vaccines and other medicines in the Global South to meet immediate and future pandemic and everyday essential health needs.

3. Vaccines should be free of charge and prioritised based on need.
At the national level, it is crucial that vaccine allocation plans are transparently published and demonstrate government commitment to ensuring vaccines go first to those who need them most, and not those with the deepest pockets or best connections. And, without exception, vaccines should be provided to people free of charge. These should be two non-negotiable requirements before Bank funding is signed off.

Oxfam’s research on the World Bank’s initial COVID-19 response found that ensuring free access to healthcare during the pandemic has been a major blind spot. We found that very few of the COVID emergency projects were addressing financial barriers to accessing healthcare, such as removing user fees for healthcare services. User fees lead to avoidable deaths, impoverishment and increased disease transmission. Even if it is the Bank’s intention for vaccines to be free, it should clearly and publicly state its expectation that vaccines should be free of charge, including in every project.

4. World Bank funds should be available for any safe and effective vaccine.
The Bank should also urgently get in step with the vaccine regulatory approval requirements used by the WHO and COVAX. As things stand, it has set the bar inexplicably high for which vaccines can be purchased with World Bank money, requiring approval from both the WHO and at least one stringent regulatory authority — all of which are based in rich countries. Developing countries that want — or indeed need — non-Western vaccines that are approved by WHO but are of little interest to rich country regulatory authorities, could be prevented from using Bank funds to buy them.

5. The vaccine roll-out must build up public healthcare systems for the future.
The COVID-19 crisis cannot be considered a short-term emergency. The support low- and middle-income countries receive from the Bank and other donors must go beyond short-term stop-gap measures, and address the underlying causes of weak, underfunded and inequitable healthcare systems, particularly overwhelmed workforces.

Oxfam’s research on the Bank’s initial COVID-19 response also found weaknesses in this area: two-thirds of projects lacked plans to increase the number of healthcare workers, despite huge shortages. In 70 percent of countries supported, the number of nurses per 10,000 people is below the WHO’s minimum recommended level, with 34 countries, like Malawi, not even halfway to meeting it. These healthcare workers will be crucial in a successful vaccine roll-out.

In its new assessment of country readiness for COVID-19 vaccines, the Bank has recognised this challenge, raising a red flag that “few countries are using the opportunity provided by the deployment of vaccines to strengthen healthcare systems and find long-lasting solutions for similar future challenges.” This assessment offers the Bank a clear directive to step up to the challenge and do all it can to support countries to build up their healthcare workforces and create more resilient and fair public health systems.

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