Net-zero emissions targets are all the rage, and typically this is a good thing, but in many cases, they are obscure. Some researchers who published a recent article in Nature took notice of this and presented three solutions to help make these targets seem less vague.
First, a short recap of the article. When the UN set its ceiling for global warming at well below 2°C via the Paris climate agreement, world leaders also agreed to help balance greenhouse-gas emissions in the second half of the century to correct for the greenhouse-gases previously emitted from human activities, and get to a net balance of zero for all of humanity.
A mix of countries, institutions, and companies have announced net-zero targets. However, the plans are hard to compare and the definitions are loose, Nature noted. The article stressed that the details around “net-zero” labels have enormous differences.
Important questions are overlooked and targets are pretty vague. Some don’t even aim to reduce emissions, but instead compensate for them with offsets. The three ways of clearing up the obscurity are identified as:
- Adequacy and Fairness
- Long-term Road Map.
Targets need to specify which emission sources and gases are covered. These can be all greenhouse gases, CO2 only, or another subset. Then they need to detail when net-zero will be reached and what the exact intent is — to reduce, remove, or offset the emissions. Each of the gases affects the outcome of the climate in various ways. However, CO2 is the main cause of rising global temperatures.
Bringing those emissions down to net zero will halt further warming, but the impact of CO2 already present will not go away once net-zero is reached. Those emissions already in our atmosphere will continue to impact our planet for many centuries.
Each entity — whether it’s a country, company, or institution — has its own track. The EU, China, and the U.S. each have their own goals. For example, the U.S. wants to reach net zero by 2050 but hasn’t mentioned which gases are covered — we need more clarity.
Vague terms such as “carbon neutral” and “climate neutral” are often interchangeable with net-zero CO2 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are times the former terms are not synonymous with the latter terms, which leads to confusion. The Nature article cited France’s goal: to reach carbon neutrality across all greenhouse gases.
Added into that confused mix is the fact that the scope of the sources of emissions covered also varies.
For instance, a company’s target may only cover emissions that result from their direct activities. Or perhaps they set a net-zero CO2 target for 2050 that covers just buildings and operations on land, with no plans for emissions from airplanes. The article adds more details on the importance of scope in this sense while listing several examples.
Adequacy & Fairness
This refers to the assumption of those setting net-zero targets that these goals will meet the global goals of the Paris agreement. The Nature article noted that these involve implicit assumptions about what a fair contribution would be and what others should contribute. There are ethical judgements being made here even if they are not explicit. What is considered fair? This idea of fairness is vastly different across countries, communities, companies — each have their own perception of the idea of fairness.
The article also pointed out that net-zero targets that are defined using metrics other than GWP-100 shift the mitigation burden between gases. And with that, between sectors and countries. This could give less weight to methane — making it easier for countries with high emissions from agriculture to claim that net-zero has been reached when it hasn’t.
“If one country or company does less, others have to do more to achieve the same global temperature outcome.”
Not only is this not fair, but this idea is using inaccuracy to put more responsibility on the others doing their part. To bring in clarity, parties to the Paris agreement need to disclose why they consider their net-zero targets to be fair and adequate, the authors argue. Not just say, “oh, hey we reached this target,” without showing how and backing up their claims with proof.
Another issue regarding fairness is the idea of carbon offsets. Nature noted that cheap offsets can translate to a company making a limited effort to address its own emissions. In a sense, it’s bribery. Cutting emissions locally is much preferable to offsetting them and relying on offsets could be come not just unrealistic, but unfair to those who do provide offsets but are unable to count those actions towards their own targets.
2 Key Questions For Adequacy & Fairness
The scientists provided these two questions that can help countries, companies, and institutions set goals for their targets while being fair and opting for adequacy:
- Would the world still hit net zero if everyone applied this logic?
- Would it be fair to apply the same logic to all countries?
Long-Term Road Map
The third solution is to create a long-term road map that includes milestones, an implementation plan, and a statement about the longer-term intent. That statement can be for maintaining net zero or going net negative. The researchers pointed out that if these are left out, it could lead to inaction, diversions, and even failure.
The article cited the UK’s 2019 announcement as an example. In 2019, the UK announced that it would reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, it’s near-term policies are still way off track. Last year, it published its first NDC for 2030, and along with other policy milestones, these present a plan that makes more sense.
The authors also stressed that net-zero targets are not end points. Instead, they should be seen as milestones to meeting net-negative emissions targets further down the road. And those who are most able to reach a net-negative future need to plan for it now — out of necessity, not generosity.
Nature laid out a checklist for those interested in using these solutions to make their net-zero targets clearer and ended its article with the statement that today’s targets are only the start of a long journey towards a safer world. It makes sense to adopt these solutions into any net-zero target plan and use those questions to solve how you are going to reach a net zero target by the time you initially planned to reach it. You can read the full article and checklist here.