As Net-Zero Pledges Proliferate, New Report Scrutinizes Details

When evaluating net-zero pledges, these are the points that matter.

UK Pushes Wind Energy In Pursuit Of 'Net Zero' Emissions
UK pushes wind energy in pursuit of net-zero emissions by 2050. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

When news broke of insurance giant Aviva making a significant net-zero pledge, we noted that it’s getting increasingly hard to tell exactly what net-zero really means. There’s a big difference, for instance, between ‘net-zero’ oil production that still keeps the oil flowing and net-zero farming that really is locking (at least some) carbon into the ground.

The lesson appears to be not that net-zero is either good or bad as a concept – but rather, that the details of each pledge really, really matter.

Fortunately, we now have a new tool with which to gauge the growing number of net-zero commitments. And that’s because researchers at Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit have teamed up with Oxford Net Zero to launch a new report, Taking Stock: A Global Assessment of Net Zero Targets. They believe this report is the first "quantitative analysis of net zero commitments across countries, sub-national governments and major companies.”

What Is Net-Zero?

Net-zero is a scenario in which human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are reduced as much as possible, with those that remain being balanced out by the removal of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.

While it doesn’t answer all the questions we have about net-zero, it does provide a super useful starting point for how we should even be thinking about this concept. Before we get into some of the lessons on specifics, the report also serves to highlight just how quickly the idea of net-zero has spread. Specifically, it found:

  • 61% of countries are now covered by some form of net-zero commitment.
  • 9% of states and regions in the largest emitting countries and 13% of cities over 500,000 in population have now also committed to net-zero.
  • At least 21% of the world’s largest companies have also made a pledge to meet net-zero.

In the Executive Summary, the report’s authors argue that the rapid spread of net-zero can be seen as an encouraging sign of much-needed momentum. They also warn, however, that lofty and far-off goals are only going to be useful if they are matched by nearer-term targets and immediate action also:

“Keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of the Paris Agreement, entails reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050. So the existence of net zero targets covering around two-thirds of the global economy represents a remarkable advance in climate ambition since the Paris summit of 2015. Setting long-term goals aligned with science can be an important driver of action; but without immediate action, long-term goals will remain forever out of reach.”

"Robustness Criteria" For Net-Zero Pledges

The real meat (or plant-based protein) of the report doesn’t really lie in how many entities have committed to net-zero. Instead, the authors also explore a set of "robustness criteria" that folks need to be looking out for as these pledges become more commonplace. These include:

Coverage: What gases are included? Carbon dioxide only, or also other important greenhouse gases like methane?

Timing: What year is the net-zero goal set for, but also whether or not there are interim targets established – for example, 50% reduction by 2030.

Status: Some national targets have simply been announced by the government, while others have been published in an official policy document. Yet others may be in draft legislation, already in law or – for a few – may actually have already been achieved. Similarly, for corporations, there’s a huge difference between a simple promise and a fleshed-out strategy that is integrated into the company’s governance documents.

Offsetting: It almost goes without saying that offsets are a controversial topic – with questions ranging from their additionality (whether they actually reduce emissions) to their permanence (e.g. whether emissions may be released again in the event of a forest fire, for example). The report's authors manage to move beyond the usual offsets good/offsets bad discourse, and instead suggest that offsets may end up being a necessary element of net-zero goals, at least in the short term, but that they need to be carefully managed. As such, net-zero pledges should focus first and foremost on reduction at source, be transparent about how much they rely on offsets, and what types and what quality of offsets are stipulated. That reliance should also phase out over time, and move increasingly toward offsets that permanently remove emissions from the atmosphere.

Governance: Obviously, targets mean little unless they are achieved. So the report also looks at governance through the lens of whether the entity has published a plan for achieving the target, whether it has clear interim targets on timescales of planning cycles to assure accountability, and also on whether it has committed to report publicly on its progress.

Ultimately, there is a lot of work still to be done. But the report’s authors point out that the fact that so many countries, regions, and companies are committing to net-zero is a useful starting point for making sure that work actually happens. The challenge now is in using those commitments to move everyone toward increasingly substantive, ambitious, and comprehensive strategies for actual execution.

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