by Joseph Winters
Image by freepik
As companies around the world pledge to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, a major U.S. energy company is charting a different path toward what it’s calling — and trademarking — “real zero.”
NextEra Energy announced this month that it intends to achieve “real zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, zeroing out its climate pollution without the use of carbon offsets or carbon capture. According to NextEra — whose subsidiaries include natural gas pipeline developers, a major renewable energy producer, and one of the U.S.’s largest electric utilities, Florida Power & Light — the move is intended to establish the company as an industry leader, differentiating it from the slew of other firms whose net-zero commitments have come under scrutiny.
Environmental advocates agree that the move is largely positive, although questions remain over some of the details — especially the way that NextEra will lean on so-called “green hydrogen” to drive down emissions over the coming decades. “It should bring a lot of skepticism from climate activists and decision-makers,” said Sasan Saadat, a senior research and policy analyst for the nonprofit Earthjustice.
The main problem that NextEra is seeking to address with its “real zero” commitment is the unreliability of carbon accounting mechanisms that are often used in net-zero calculations. To neutralize their emissions, many companies rely on carbon offsets, which allow them to make up for ongoing climate pollution at their own firms by buying credits tied to projects that reduce emissions in other parts of the world. Basically, these credits act as a kind of promise that the emissions created in one area will be canceled out by emissions prevented somewhere else. One popular kind of offset involves forest conservation, which keeps carbon dioxide from being released when trees are cut down. Although it sounds good in theory, investigations from watchdog groups, journalists, and regulators have revealed a large number of offsetting schemes to be ineffective — or even “worse than nothing.” Forests that were ostensibly being protected for offsetting purposes, for instance, were never under threat from logging — which means that the purchase of offsets didn’t actually prevent any emissions.
This poses a major issue for the reliability of countries and corporations’ decarbonization commitments. If they continue to create climate pollution, justified on the basis of questionable offsets, greenhouse gases will continue accumulating in the environment, driving up global temperatures. It was in part because of far-reaching but poorly supported claims about carbon offsetting that a recent report from Net Zero Tracker, an analysis project coordinated by nonprofit organizations and research labs, identified an “alarming lack of credibility” within the net-zero landscape. “Relying on emissions offsets is not the right approach for companies to take,” said Takeshi Kuramochi, a senior climate policy researcher for the New Climate Institute and a co-author of the report.
NextEra acknowledged these problems in its commitment to “real zero,” swearing off carbon offsets in its own pledge to decarbonize. The company also objected to the inclusion of carbon removal, an expensive and as-of-yet unscalable technology that involves sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in rock formations or using other techniques to permanently remove carbon from the air. Instead, NextEra’s CEO, John Ketchum, has pinned his company’s strategy on the rapid expansion of renewable energy, as well as battery storage to deliver energy when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. “We’ve worked hard in developing Real Zero to ensure we have a credible technical pathway to achieve our goals,” he said in a statement. His plan would see the creation of “hundreds of millions” of solar panels by 2045 and expand the company’s battery storage by at least a factor of 10.
So far, so good. Environmental advocates have applauded NextEra for recognizing the growing importance of solar and, as Saadat put it, calling out other energy companies’ reliance on the “fiction” of carbon offsets. John Lang, Net Zero Tracker’s project lead, also welcomed the company’s inclusion of interim emissions reduction targets every five years between now and 2045. However, he and others still shared concerns over NextEra’s “real zero” plans — primarily around the use of “green hydrogen,” a clean-burning fuel that’s produced by splitting a water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen using only renewable energy.