The Net Zero Race Problem

Originally uploaded May 19, 2021

So there’s a race problem with net zero is there? Well yes, but we’re not going to be talking about racial inequality today. Instead, in this entry we’ll be digging into the UNFCCC’s framing of their recent campaign: Race To Zero.

A little background on Race to Zero. It’s the world’s largest ever net zero commitment alliance that covers half of the world’s GDP and one quarter of carbon emissions. The UNFCCC is an international climate change treaty. Their official objective is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. This objective is inherently global due to the transboundary nature of gaseous emissions and climate systems. Now to my problem with race. Race to Zero has used a flurry of race-derived language for their campaign. Terms like High-Level Champions, the Starting Line and Leadership Criteria form a large part of the campaign lexicon and set a precedent for how this project will be thought of over the next 30 years. The decision to use this kind of analogy is one that I think perfectly demonstrates some of the biggest issues with Western ideas of environmental justice.

The Starting Line

When thinking about the kind of image a “race” signals, a video I saw on Fa***ook a few years ago comes to mind. In this video, teenagers are told they will win $100 for finishing first in a race. They are then told to take a step forward for certain advantages they’ve had access to – a personal tutor, private education etc. We end up with a pretty good visual representation of inequality in the school system as Boris and David both step one step to victory. If we transfer this analogy to the Race to Zero, we can start to imagine a more accurate “Starting Line” for this race. Qualification for this race requires a lot of reporting to rigorous standards; which means expensive consultants and the campaign immediately takes a hit on the inclusion side of things. In reality, competitors in the global south (who are starting some 50 years behind the Western economies in this race) are actually far more climate positive than competitors in developed regions that form a large part of the parties in this race. They use low-technology, human centred methods of production that are aligned with the natural system they rely on; but they won’t be recognised for that. They will instead be shunned by other international institutions for being uncompetitive on the global market. So there are a lot of companies, nations and industries that are not even allowed on the starting grid, no matter their low impact or alignment with the overall goal: emitting an environmentally just amount of carbon.

The Rules of the Race

The rules of this race are governed by an umpire who is ruthless and has a firm grip on the competitors. The rules of this race are of course the same rules that govern how we function and progress as a human race: the market economy rulebook. To cut a long story short, mother nature has never had a seat at the market economy’s table and thus, this race will be governed by rules that deny nature’s role in decision making.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them, right?

As humans, we have never been so good at sticking to a fair set of rules, be it that time one race enslaved another for a few hundred years or that time women had a lower social/economic/political standing than men… oh wait. If there are rules, we will cheat and historically the biggest culprits when it comes to disregarding a fair set of rules in modern history are the same groups that are hosting the event. Uh oh!

The Finishing Line

A race with a starting line implies that there is also a finishing line. This is perhaps the most subtle but destructive part of the Race to Zero framing. Much like how the “when I get this promotion…” or “when I buy this new car I’ll be happy” mentality is conducive to poor mental wellbeing in today’s world, the implication of a finishing line or endpoint is a wild and nonsensical thought when it comes to natural systems. The concept of natural (as opposed to human) time itself – and I wont get too spiritual here – is anything but linear. Just as there are no straight lines in nature, there are no beginnings and no ends, only cycles and new beginnings. To imply that when we reach net zero our climate change problem is somehow also at its end is Western idealism at its finest. No grounding in anything but what aligns with our ideas of how the world works in our collective brain, however dissociated from the truth.

The Awards Ceremony

When we begin to approach 2050, I’m sure that there will be a lot of people in a New York conference centre patting the suited back of one and other for their Net Zero race participation medals.

What we as a collective entity are participating in is not a race, it’s a survival cycle. To be champions of this survival cycle we must (together!) see deep realisation of where we exist in relation to nature as well as innovation and prosperity. Let us not overlook those who have already won the Race to Zero.