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EXPLAINER: Are we making real progress towards 'net zero' emissions?

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 13 June 2022 16:15 GMT

Solar panels are shown on the roof of the Hanover Olympic building, the first building to offer individual solar-powered net-zero apartments in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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Many countries and companies have set 'net zero' goals to curb global warming - but they are still too weak to kickstart the huge changes needed in how we live, work and play

BARCELONA, June 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments, cities and companies are rushing to set the net-zero emissions goals scientists say must be met by mid-century to keep global warming to agreed limits - but achieving them is another matter.

A new analysis by the Net Zero Tracker research initiative notes that in the last few years interest in setting such targets has "exploded" – but "an alarming lack of credibility still pervades the entire landscape", it warned.

"This is problematic because if some of the targets disguise inaction, it can create a false sense of progress," said the June report from the UK-based Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, Data-Driven EnviroLab, NewClimate Institute and Oxford Net Zero.

Many of the goals - especially those set by business - lack transparency, cover only limited types of emissions, rely too heavily on carbon offsetting or have no interim milestones to stay on track, it added.

What does the growing global enthusiasm for "net zero" mean and what is its importance for the climate and our economies?

WHY DOES 'NET ZERO' MATTER?

It may have become a buzzword in the world of climate action, but scientists and policy makers say it's key to keeping us safe from harm as the planet warms.

The U.N. climate science panel has said man-made carbon dioxide emissions need to fall by about 45% by 2030, from 2010 levels, and reach "net zero" by mid-century to give the world a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nearly 200 countries said they would act to curb the rise in global average temperatures to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times and strive to keep it to a ceiling of 1.5C.

But the world has already heated up by about 1.1C and is set for warming of close to 2.5C this century, even if current pledges to rein in still-rising emissions by 2030 are implemented, researchers estimate.

In May, the World Meteorological Organization warned there is a 50:50 chance of the average global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5C above the pre-industrial level for at least one of the next five years – and that likelihood is increasing with time.

Should that happen, it would not mean the Paris accord limits have been broken but it would be a precursor of what the world could be like if they are.

Scientists say surpassing 1.5-2C of warming for a longer period of time would bring worsening extreme weather and potentially catastrophic sea level rise, making some parts of the planet uninhabitable and fuelling hunger and migration.

These risks - and mounting public pressure to act on climate change threats - are why a fast-rising number of countries, companies and others are promising to cut their planet-warming emissions to net zero by 2050 or soon after.

If the mid-century net-zero goals set so far are actually met, global warming could be kept to about 1.8C, analysts say.

But some climate activists have criticised 2050 net-zero goals for enabling countries and companies to postpone emissions reductions until a vague far-off date.

WHAT IS NET ZERO?

Achieving net-zero emissions isn't the same as eliminating all emissions.

It means ensuring any human-produced carbon dioxide (CO2) or other planet-warming gases that can't be avoided or locked up are removed from the atmosphere some other way.

This can be done naturally, such as by restoring forests that suck CO2 out of the air. It can also be done using technology that captures and stores emissions from power plants and factories or directly pulls CO2 from the atmosphere.

Planting more trees worldwide is a popular way to absorb and store more carbon, but human-made technologies that perform the same job remain expensive and have yet to be deployed on a large-scale.

Scientists say carbon "removals", in any form, cannot substitute for cutting greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible - although some removals are likely to be needed and deployed to help curb rising temperatures.

There is fierce debate around the growing enthusiasm for carbon offsetting - where governments, companies and individuals pay for their emissions to be compensated by clean energy and conservation projects that reduce CO2 emissions elsewhere. Those emissions cuts are then counted as part of the government, company or individual’s own carbon-cutting efforts.

WHO HAS COMMITTED TO NET ZERO?

At a country level, the picture is improving, according to the latest Net Zero Tracker report, but things are advancing more slowly among businesses and cities.

National government net-zero targets now cover 91% of global GDP, up from 68% in December 2020, and represent at least 83% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with about two-thirds of those goals enshrined in law or policy documents.

Only 10 countries have set target years later than 2050 but they include some of the world’s biggest emitters – including China’s 2060 pledge and India’s 2070 commitment. Those 10 countries are responsible for about 55% of all emissions by countries with net zero targets, the researchers said.

Large cities are lagging, with 235 having set a net-zero target, mainly in rich countries in North America, Europe, and Asia - but more than 900 have yet to do so.

More than a third of the world’s largest publicly traded companies, meanwhile, now have net-zero targets - up from a fifth in December 2020 - but 65% of corporate targets do not yet meet minimum reporting standards, said the latest Net Zero Tracker report.

Europe is doing best in terms of the proportion of companies with net-zero targets, with 58%, compared with 36% in North America and 20% in East Asia.

But a February report from the NewClimate Institute and Carbon Market Watch warned that net-zero and carbon-neutral pledges can hide a multitude of sins, and there is a need for more information to allow consumers to work out which amount to little more than “green-washing”.

The analysis looked at 25 of the world’s largest corporations, many of them household names – from Amazon to IKEA, Carrefour and Google – and found their net-zero pledges amounted to future emissions reductions, often decades from now, of an average of just 40%.

The problems identified range from a lack of specific emissions reduction targets to vagueness around which parts of the supply chain are covered and the use of carbon credits to offset company emissions instead of efforts to cut them. 

HOW DO YOU SET A CREDIBLE NET-ZERO TARGET?

The World Resources Institute (WRI) and the 2050 Pathways Platform - which work with governments and others on their climate commitments - say cutting emissions within national boundaries should be the priority, with efforts to offset what remains considered only after that.

Currently, only a few governments explicitly aim to use offset credits outside of their jurisdiction to meet their net zero targets or reserve the right to do so: 17 out of 128 countries; 15 out of 115 states and regions; and 39 out of 235 cities, according to Net Zero Tracker.

The share is far higher for corporations at nearly 40%, especially among those targeting net-zero emissions for earlier dates such as 2030. Less than 2% of companies have explicitly ruled out their use, leaving close to 60% that have not specified whether or not they plan to rely on offsetting.

To be credible, net-zero targets should cover all greenhouse gases, including methane, and all economic sectors, as well as international aviation and shipping, WRI says.

Plans for net-zero emissions should be achieved by 2050 or earlier, with the highest-emitting countries doing the most, fastest - and they should be crafted in consultation with those they will affect and clearly communicated, WRI recommends.

The steps needed to get to net zero should be incorporated now into ambitious 2030 emissions reduction targets in national plans and reflected in everyday decision-making, to avoid new investments in high-carbon technologies and infrastructure, according to WRI researchers.

Company net-zero targets often cover very different sources of emissions, with different baselines, and can be challenging to compare, though the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has released guidelines to help remedy that.

This year, U.N. chief António Guterres launched a high-level expert group to help develop stronger and clearer standards for net-zero pledges by businesses, investors and local governments, as well as to verify progress towards them and accelerate their implementation through new rules and regulations.

The U.N.-led "Race to Zero" campaign, launched on World Environment Day in June 2020, also unites businesses, cities and other organisations that aim by around mid-century to cut their planet-heating emissions to net zero.

With a growing focus on the robustness of those commitments, Race to Zero members must meet stringent criteria, including submitting a plan in line with climate science and setting interim targets to reduce emissions.

This explainer was updated on June 13, 2022, with new information on the growth in net-zero targets from the latest Net Zero Tracker analysis.

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Consumers left in the dark as corporate net-zero plans fail to add up

More net than zero: Do carbon-cutting promises add up for the climate?

Meaningless or sensible? Net zero by 2050 divides climate community

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)