‘Net zero’ carbon targets are dangerous distractions from the priority of cutting emissions says new Oxfam report

‘Net zero’ carbon targets are dangerous distractions from the priority of cutting emissions says new Oxfam report

Tuesday 3rd August 2021

  • Achieving ‘net zero’ by 2050 with land use alone would require at least 1.6 billion hectares of new forests - that's five times the size of India 
  • Land-hungry ‘net zero’ schemes could force an 80 percent rise in global food prices while allowing rich nations and corporates to continue “dirty business-as-usual”  
  • Society-wide change required for Ireland to reach its 2030 ambition  

Using land alone to remove the world’s carbon emissions to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2050 would require at least 1.6 billion hectares of new forests, equivalent to five times the size of India or more than all the farmland on the planet, reveals a new Oxfam report today.

Oxfam’s report “Tightening the Net” says that too many governments and corporations are hiding behind unreliable, unproven and unrealistic ’carbon removal’ schemes in order to claim their 2050 climate change plans will be ‘net zero’. At the same time, they are failing to cut emissions quickly or deeply enough to avert catastrophic climate breakdown. Their sudden rush of ‘net zero’ promises are over-relying on vast swathes of land to plant trees in order to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. 

To limit warming below 1.5°C and prevent irreversible damage from climate change, the world collectively should be on track to cut 2010 carbon emissions level by 45 percent by 2030, with the sharpest being made by the biggest emitters. Countries’ current plans to cut emissions will achieve only around one percent reduction in global emissions by 2030.

Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland said: “The climate crisis is already devastating agriculture globally. It is driving worsening humanitarian crises, hunger, and migration. Poor and vulnerable people, particularly women farmers and Indigenous people, are being affected first and worst. 

“’Net zero’ should be based on ‘real zero’ targets that require drastic and genuine cuts in emissions, phasing out fossil fuels and investing in clean energy and supply chains. Instead, too many ‘net zero’ commitments provide a fig leaf for climate inaction. They are a dangerous gamble with our planet’s future.

“Nature and land-based carbon removal schemes are an important part of the mix of efforts needed to stop global emissions, but they must be pursued in a much more cautious way. Under current plans, there is simply not enough land in the world to realise them all. They could instead spark even more hunger, land grabs and human rights abuses, while polluters use them as an alibi to keep polluting.”

Oxfam recently reported that global food prices have risen by 40 percent in the past year, which has contributed to 20 million more people falling into catastrophic conditions of hunger and a six-fold increase in famine-like conditions. If used at scale, land-based carbon removal methods such as mass tree planting could see global food prices surging by 80 percent by 2050.

In the run-up to the Glasgow COP this year, more than 120 countries, including the world’s top three emitters ―the US, China and the EU― have pledged to reach ‘net-zero’ by mid-century. Most of these pledges are vague and not backed by measurable plans. 

Clarken continued: “‘Net-zero’ might sound like a good idea, but over-relying on planting trees and as-yet-unproven technology instead of genuinely shifting away from fossil fuelled-dependent economies is a dangerous folly. We will be hoodwinked by ‘net zero’ targets if all they amount to are smokescreens for dirty business-as-usual.

“Land is a finite and precious resource. It is what millions of small-scale farmers and Indigenous people around the world depend upon for their livelihoods.”

With less than 100 days left until the UN climate talks in Glasgow, governments and corporations need a much stronger focus on swiftly and deeply cutting carbon emissions in the near-term, starting at home and with their own operations and supply chains. If ‘net-zero’ targets are used, they should be measurable, transparent and prioritise dramatically slashing emissions by 2030. Removing emissions is not a substitute for cutting emissions, and these should be counted separately. 

"There are no magic fixes to reach ‘net zero’ and Ireland should not expect offsets in low and middle income countries to come to the rescue if we miss our emission targets. The society-wide change that is required for Ireland to reach its 2030 ambition and ‘net zero’ by no later than 2050 can only be achieved if it is fully supported by a broad supportive national policy framework, including our fiscal policies, sustainable finance, spatial policy, and the national and EU research ecosystem.

“Ireland’s pathway to ‘net zero’ will not affect all groups equally at the same time. Actions to support individuals and communities in undertaking the necessary changes are, therefore, important considerations for policy design in all sectors of the economy,” Clarken concluded.



Caroline Reid, Communications Manager, 087 912 3165

Notes to editors:

  • Download Oxfam’s report: “Tightening the Net.”
  • Download the summary report here.
  • According to the IPCC, large-scale afforestation could increase food prices by about 80 percent by 2050. This would push millions more people into hunger.  
  • The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, spanning over 5.5 million square kilometres.
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