UB expert authors new book, “Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough”

Holly Jean Buck is an expert on the social and political dimensions of environmental policies, and of strategies and technologies for preventing and adapting to climate change

By Tessie Mar

Release Date: November 3, 2021

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University at Buffalo researcher Holly Buck, pictured outdoors.
“Without a plan for managing the decline of fossil fuels, net-zero talk and nascent carbon removal techniques are likely to be a discursive strategy for companies and countries to continue producing large amounts of fossil fuels. ”
Holly Jean Buck, assistant professor of environment and sustainability
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A new book by University at Buffalo researcher Holly Jean Buck provides readers with a digestible guide to understanding the “net zero” environmental strategy — and why, from her perspective, the world needs to take more drastic measures to mitigate climate change.

The ecological clock is ticking, so how can we fully transition to renewables?

The book, “Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough,” is set to be released by Verso Books on Nov. 2 in the United Kingdom, and then in the U.S. on Nov. 16.

Net zero sounds good. It’s a flashy progressive term. Simply put, it means balancing some amount of greenhouse gas emissions with negative emissions or removals through practices such as planting trees and direct air capture of carbon dioxide.

But in the world’s current state, net zero emissions is not enough, Buck says. She aims to draw people’s attention to the need to phase out fossil fuel production instead.

“I talk about policies we need, such as banning oil exploration and drilling. Then you can get more ambitious like nationalizing the fossil fuel industry to exit them altogether. Actions like divestment and boycotts from fossil fuels are good for spreading awareness, but the needed changes are much deeper,” says Buck, an assistant professor in the UB College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Environment and Sustainability.

Buck’s research focuses on the social and political dimensions of environmental policies, and of strategies and technologies for preventing and adapting to climate change.

The new book is intended for a global audience with a range of knowledge bases. This includes the general public, college students, policymakers, academics, individuals seeking to understand decarbonization and scientists.

Phasing out fossil fuels

“Ending Fossil Fuels” tackles the complex issue of phasing out fossil fuels as a way to mitigate climate change. In the book, Buck discusses the steps that corporations, governments, and big tech can take to scale back and divest from fossil fuels.

Misinformation is a major threat to climate action, with platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter jeopardizing people’s ability to deliberate over addressing climate change, Buck says. She adds that tech regulation is critical to eliminate misinformation, improve algorithms, and foster a more nuanced conversation.

Buck uses a multidimensional lens to examine the issue of phasing out fossil fuels by accounting for geopolitics, environmental justice, culture, infrastructure, tech and political power.

Banning oil exploration and drilling, and refusing to finance fossil fuel infrastructure are among prerequisite steps, she says. She also suggests nationalizing the fossil fuel industry to put it into public ownership, and transitioning this industry to produce renewable energy and oversee carbon management that can result in putting carbon back underground. 

Net zero cannot be the end goal

Society needs to include net zero in the discussion about ending fossil fuels, Buck says. There is discourse, for example, surrounding whether it is fair to expect developing nations to reach full decarbonization without first experiencing industrialization. But net zero cannot be the end goal, she says.

“Without a plan for managing the decline of fossil fuels, net-zero talk and nascent carbon removal techniques are likely to be a discursive strategy for companies and countries to continue producing large amounts of fossil fuels,” she writes in the book. “Net zero on its own is the wrong target of climate action. Curbing production and climate justice are both better goals.”

She remarks on the complexity of the issue, noting that efforts to pursue net zero in this context are still challenging.

For example, much of the world’s ability to avoid even more disastrous warming hinges on nations’ and companies’ capacity to meet commitments to the emissions targets they have set. However, as Buck notes, technologies for carbon removal are not mature, and there is limited funding for implementation.

Among the goals of the book, she says, are to demystify where people’s energy comes from, popularize carbon removal processes, and enlighten readers to navigate their own path to sustainability.

“I wanted the public to have more access to this information, to know what’s going on and take back control,” Buck explains.

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