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Greenwash or lifeline? Tough rules needed for credible net-zero plans

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 28 June 2021 17:52 GMT

Two gas flaring furnaces and a woman walking on sand barriers are reflected in a pool of oil-smeared water at a flow station in Ughelli, Delta State, Nigeria September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotund

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Net-zero commitments are proliferating but will prove little more than a 'fig leaf' for big polluters unless rules are put in place requiring them to be met, analysts say

* Net-zero pledges now cover two-thirds of global GDP

* Climate-changing emissions still rising despite promises

* Tough, transparent rules for meeting pledges are key

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, June 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Countries and firms that produce two-thirds of the world's economic output have now pledged to slash their emissions to net zero by mid-century - but how those promises are met will determine whether climate action succeeds, analysts said Monday.

For now, too few have roadmaps for the fast and deep emissions cuts needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming, climate scientists, academics and activists told an online event during London Climate Action Week.

Instead many net-zero plans rely on carbon offsets or fledgling technology, while effective systems to scrutinise them are yet to be put in place, the specialists warned.

Net-zero pledges by fossil fuel companies, in particular, may prove little more than a "fig leaf" for continued production of oil, gas and coal, which have driven 80% of climate heating, they added.

"There are some good net-zero targets out there, there are some bad ones and there are some ugly ones," said Richard Black, a net-zero expert at Imperial College London's Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment.

Credible plans, he said, involve taking action now to cut fossil fuel use, setting tough targets well before the 2050 "decarbonisation" deadline, and making annual progress reports.

But far too few do all of that, said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International.

"We are now in the fight - the power fight - for whether net-zero can be something that is a driver of change or if it is going to be captured by the fossil fuel industry and others to keep on doing what they want to do," she said.

Whether the world can hold the line on increasingly deadly planetary warming - driving everything from punishing heatwaves to fiercer storms and fires - will now come down to "politics", she emphasised.

That means "whether the corporate powers that are dominating right now" stay in control or whether activist movements, courts and others demanding greater accountability win, she added.


Thomas Hale, a public policy expert at the University of Oxford who has worked on net-zero regulations, said the surge in pledges had made clear "the climate movement has won" in terms of pressing countries and firms to publicly commit to change.

But similar pressure is now required to push through strong, transparent rules that help ensure the pledges become a reality, he said.

"Scrutiny and accountability is exactly what's needed," he added.

Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative and an academic at Toronto's York University, said those who have made pledges should be asked tough questions about their plans to cut their own fossil fuel use and production.

For oil, gas and coal companies, that should include not just how they will reduce emissions from their own production, but also emissions from how their products are used, she said.

The first question should be, "What are your plans this year?" - rather than focusing on 2050 goals three decades away, she said.

Swift, deep cuts in fossil fuel use are crucial not just to meet 2050 pledges but to hold onto the more ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change, to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times.

Heating above that level is likely to drive much more extreme weather and sea level rise, as well as food and water shortages, migration and conflict, climate scientists predict.

Because so many net-zero plans rely heavily on uncertain offsets to achieve their goals - things like planting more carbon-absorbing trees or storing emissions underground - that 1.5C goal may already be lost, said James Dyke of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter.

Emissions are still rising, despite efforts to slow them, and net-zero plans allow companies to say they are acting without doing "the radical decarbonisation we actually need", he said.

The public narrative is that the climate problem is under control as a result of net-zero pledges - but it's not, he said.

Berman said use of renewable energy is soaring, yet as demand for power grows around the world, 80% of global energy still comes from oil, gas and coal.

"Fossil fuel use is still going up and renewables are not displacing it," she said, noting that fossil fuel production needs to decline 6% a year to meet the Paris Agreement goals.

Farhana Yamin, a lawyer, climate activist and adviser to the Climate Vulnerable Forum of 48 countries, pointed out that the ultimate goal should be to end nearly all climate-changing emissions, not just reach net-zero targets.

Governments in every country should mandate a zero-emissions target in law and define what it means, so that companies, regions and others do not set their own standards, she said.

Every bit of additional warming on the way to meeting net-zero goals brings added risks, she added.

When it comes to climate change, "there is no safe limit", she said. "There are always consequences."

Related stories:

Climate primer: What is net zero and why does it matter?

As firms chase net zero, backers say offsets are a partial answer

Businesses join to hunt 'right recipe' for zero-carbon industries

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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