Gavin Lipsith, head of content at Wake Media, on swapping ethics for accounting. “Net zero is not zero. If I poison you but promise to remove the poison in, oh, a week’s time, there is not a net-zero impact on your health.”
As a stepfather to five teenagers I am no stranger to murderous impulses. But I’ve been put off by worrying about how I would pay for my crime; there’s no time for rehabilitation in the busy maritime world. Now, inspired by recent announcements, I have a solution. I’m becoming a net zero murderer. Next time the red mist settles there will be two ways to clear my account. Either pay someone else not to kill someone, or get someone else pregnant.
If that seems like cheating, it’s just the kind of fun logic that entails when you swap ethics for accounting. The hollow-sounding declarations of companies aiming for net zero emissions are a case in point.
Net zero is not zero. If I poison you but promise to remove the poison in, oh, a week’s time, there is not a net-zero impact on your health. What’s critical is the effect and the timescale – the damage is done, the remedy is long overdue, but because you’ve planted trees or invested in windfarms, you can claim to be a net zero emitter. And that label can easily be taken to mean more than it does by people who don’t know better.
Like the takings of a disappointed fisherman, the net is the catch. There are genuine concerns that disingenuous companies will rely on emissions offsetting and trading to balance their emissions rather than taking the more painful and costly moves that could slow their actual emissions output. In the case of shipping companies, that means working as quickly as possible to introduce zero-carbon fuels or energy sources and meanwhile optimising ship design, operation and fleet management for energy efficiency. In the case of oil companies, it is a far thornier issue, for obvious reasons.
Now I am no environmentalist. Nor am I claiming that there is no place for emissions offsetting- be that planting trees, investing in new clean technology or in recapturing carbon from the atmosphere. Even emissions trading on an inter-governmental scale may help to rebalance the injustice of developed countries suddenly demanding that developing countries stop emitting. What I am is a communications specialist that believes the public and media should be treated with respect.
As journalists and laymen become more familiar with the concept of ‘net zero’ they will take a scalpel to such claims. How much is a genuine move to reducing emissions? How much is offsetting? And, crucially, when will each step happen? The companies with only vague answers will encourage scepticism. Those trying to buy themselves the right to emit more will lose trust.
Why risk being seen as evasive or dishonest? Better to truly inform the public. Accept and explain the difference between net zero and zero emissions: be part of the public’s education process. Then explain separately your emission reduction and emission offsetting plans. At Wake Media, we call this business-to-person communications. Before they are customers or stakeholders or business partners, your target audience are people. And people respond to honesty.
Planting more trees and capturing carbon is fine; investing in and incentivising zero-carbon companies is fine. But that doesn’t relieve companies of the responsibility to cut their own, gross emissions where possible, or to communicate truthfully about their path to lower emissions. Whether the victims are climate change targets, corporate credibility or even stepchildren, killers rarely escape justice.
I've been thinking about net zero today. If I hire a hitman can I call myself a net-zero murderer? No. I need to kill someone and then either a) pay someone else not to kill someone or b) get someone else pregnant. Such fun replacing ethics with accounting.
— Gavin Lipsith (@ShipTechGav) February 12, 2020