The growing avalanche of governments and companies committing to cut their climate-changing carbon pollution to net zero now covers 88% of global emissions, according to a tracker run by leading climate analysis groups.
But those pledges do not mean the world is on its way to cutting emissions and curbing climate threats any time soon, activists warned at the COP26 U.N. climate talks in Glasgow.
That is because many such pledges do not depend on actually reducing emissions, but rather on paying others to try to suck them up, such as by planting trees that absorb carbon dioxide.
That is true of fossil fuel companies, oil-and-gas producing nations and other large emitters such as meat and dairy firms, climate campaigners said.
Saudi Arabia last month pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060, and state oil company Saudi Aramco said it would do the same by 2050 - but neither have indicated that they will reduce fossil fuel exports, analysts said.
Australia similarly set a 2050 net-zero goal last month, but aims to achieve as much as 20% of that goal with carbon offsets, said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International.
"Net-zero does not mean zero," warned Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator for ActionAid International. "In the majority of cases, these corporations ... are planning to carry on business as usual" for long periods, she added.
Shefali Sharma, director of the European office of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said her organization had looked into the net-zero commitments made by several global meat and dairy firms over the last year.
The nonprofit group found that none of the companies intended to reduce the number of animals in their supply chains, suggesting a heavy reliance instead on offsets.
"There's such a rush to create these carbon credits and net-zero ... but we’re really lacking the evidence any of this is going to work," she said.
The problem with relying on offsets linked to forests and other natural systems, the activists said, is that the emissions reductions associated with them may not be permanent, particularly with forest fires rising around the world.
There is also likely to be a huge under-supply of credible offsets to meet the vast and rising demand for them, they added.
Altogether, 137 countries, 111 regions, 225 cities and 638 companies now have made net-zero pledges, according to the Net Zero Tracker, supported by the UK-based Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, the University of Oxford and other partners.
The original aim of such pledges was for those making them to switch away from fossil fuels, in line with what scientists and the International Energy Agency say is required, and to cut other emissions in their operations and supply chains.
Any small, lingering emissions - after large-scale cuts - could then be mopped up with small amounts of offsets.
In practice, because net-zero pledges are voluntary ones without enforcement mechanisms, many firms and countries are relying far too heavily on offsets rather than actually slashing their own emissions, activists said.
"Voluntary schemes are no match for regulatory schemes," Sharma noted.
Greenpeace's Morgan called an emerging initiative to scale up voluntary carbon markets to trade carbon credits - something hotly opposed by many indigenous groups who live in or near forests - "pure greenwash".
Sônia Guajajara, of the Brazilian indigenous coalition APIB, urged those at the COP26 talks to "boycott all false solutions" to the climate crisis, including carbon offsets.
But backers of such markets argue they will help channel much-needed finance, technology, and other support to developing countries where most forest offset projects are located.
That is help countries might not otherwise get, especially with international pledges by wealthy governments to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance to poorer nations still unmet, they said.
Andrew Clark, director of policy for the UK National Farmers Union, said he found criticism of carbon credits "a little frustrating", noting that many farmers would benefit from receiving payments to store more carbon in their soils by changing to greener practices.
"I understand the critique of big business," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. But "it’s more complex than a battle against big global companies trying to ease their conscience".
Efforts to formally regulate emissions reductions would likely result in "fairly minimal" rules, he noted.
Voluntary carbon markets, in contrast, offer "a much more innovative" activity that "uses the creativity of the market to generate the changes we want to see in behavior", he added.
Critics of the widespread use of carbon offsets and carbon trading, however, emphasized that if governments and companies failed to achieve real emissions cuts, courts might become the main avenue to win them.
Germany's federal constitutional court, for instance, ruled earlier this year that the government's climate plan was unconstitutional because it shifted too much of the burden of reducing emissions to future generations.
The court ordered the government to step up the ambition of its emissions-cutting plans by the end of 2022.
A Netherlands court similarly this year found oil giant Shell liable for damaging the climate, ordering a steep 45% reduction in its emissions by 2030, compared to 2019 levels.
"We've seen an exponential increase in these types of climate litigation," Morgan said.
Lawsuits are "where the action is, because people are winning", she added.
(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling.)
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