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

Published: 3rd August 2021

Land-hungry ‘net zero’ schemes could force an 80 percent rise in global food prices and more hunger while allowing rich nations and corporates to continue “dirty business-as-usual” 

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 carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 from 2010 levels, with the sharpest being made by the biggest emitters. Countries’ current plans to cut emissions will achieve only around 1 percent reduction in global emissions by 2030.

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. It is undermining all efforts including Oxfam’s to tackle inequality and poverty around the world.

Nafkote Dabi, Climate Change Lead for Oxfam International, said: “’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 realize 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.

  • Even a country as small as Switzerland could need land nearly equivalent to the entire island of Puerto Rico to plant enough trees to meet its ‘net zero’ target. Switzerland has recently struck carbon-offsetting deals with Peru and Ghana
  • Colombia has a ‘net zero’ target that requires reforesting over one million hectares of land by 2030, even though rates of deforestation continue to climb. 

One-fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest publicly listed corporations now also have ‘net-zero’ goals that are similarly dependent upon land-based carbon sinks.

  • The ‘net-zero’ climate promises of four of the world’s largest oil and gas corporations ―BP, Eni, Shell and TotalEnergies― could require them foresting an area of land equivalent to more than twice the size of the UK to achieve net zero by 2050. 
  • Oxfam’s report shows that if the entire energy sector ―whose emissions continue to soar― were to set similar ‘net-zero’ targets, it would require an area of land nearly the size of the Amazon rainforest, equivalent to a third of all farmland worldwide.
  • Shell alone will need land the size of Honduras by 2030. 

Dabi added: “‘Net-zero’ might sound like a good idea, but the oil majors’ climate plans reveal just how much land these distant ‘net-zero’ targets are banking on. Over-relying on planting trees and as-yet-unproven technology instead of genuinely shifting away from fossil fuel-dependent economies is a dangerous folly. We are already seeing the devastating consequences of climate delay. We will be hoodwinked by ‘net zero’ targets if all they amount to are smokescreens for dirty business-as-usual.”

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 prioritize dramatically slashing emissions by 2030. Removing emissions is not a substitute for cutting emissions, and these should be counted separately. 

“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. We all depend upon the good stewardship of land and for our own food security. The whole world benefits from protecting forests and safeguarding the land rights of farmers and Indigenous peoples,” said Dabi.

Notes to editors

Download Oxfam’s report: “Tightening the Net.

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.

Contact information

Annie Thériault in Peru | annie.theriault@oxfam.org | +51 936 307 990
Matt Grainger in the UK | matt.grainger@oxfam.org | (44) 07730680837

For updates, please follow @Oxfam

Please support Oxfam's Coronavirus Response Appeal.