Was 2021 the year that ‘net zero’ went mainstream?

The concept has certainly enjoyed a remarkable rise in prominance over the past couple of years. It was only in summer 2019 that the UK set what was then the first legally-binding net zero target from a major economy and set the wheels in motion for many others to follow suit. What started with a few leading governments and countries built up momentum throughout 2020, as scores of countries, cities, regions, and companies signed up to the net zeor mission. Fast forward to today, and as it stands 90 per cent of global GDP, 88 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and 85 per cent of the world’s population are now covered by some form of net zero target. These goals may vary in ambition and credibility, but the stated intent is there for all to see.

Perhaps inevitably, therefore, public awareness of the phrase ‘net zero’ has also grown, spurred on by political figures and businesses touting their commitment to climate action. In May 2020, the UK government’s regular public attitudes tracker survey showed 64 per cent of respondents had never even heard of the term, yet by the time the same survey was carried out again in November 2021, almost nine in 10 – 87 per cent – said they were aware of ‘net zero’. Pretty impressive for what is, at its core, a fairly technical concept.

But with emerging public awareness, greater scrutiny and criticism have followed. Scrutiny is certainly needed, given the huge variation between different net zero targets set by governments and businesses alike, with some far more credible and ambitious than others. These criques have, though, also led to fierce criticism not just of those governments and companies hiding behind their ambiguous ‘net zero’ ambitions as a form of ‘greenwashing’, but of the very concept itself. Among the most prominent of net zero’s detractors has been Greta Thunberg, who last year suggested such targets were “being used as excuses to postpone real action“. The world’s most famous climate campaigner is far from alone in her scepticism towards the term – concerns that have been fuelled by the way so many major polluters have embraced the term while failing to accompany their net zero targets with credible decarbonisation plans.

But Sam Fankhauser, professor of climate change economics and policy at the University of Oxford – where he is director of the Oxford Net Zero research initiative – remains a staunch defender of the ‘net zero’ concept. First and foremost, while expressing agreement with many criticisms of entities using ambiguous net zero ambitions to ‘greenwash’ their polluting activities, Fankhauser stresses the term itself is rooted in science, and that aforementioned concerns over the credibility of individual targets do not negate the logic behind the concept.

“You can’t negotiate with the science,” he tells BusinessGreen. “Net zero isn’t some sort of political device or concept, it is derived from natural science. So if you’re serious about climate targets, then you have to make net zero work. Just saying [net zero] is greenwashing or a bad idea doesn’t help, because we need net zero for science purposes.”

At its core, net zero is a concept with a clear objective to keep the rise in global average temperatures within habitable limits, and implies there is a finite budget of greenhouse gases that can be emitted into the atmosphere, beyond which further releases must be balanced by carbon removals or sinks. Few would argue against that core concept, according to Fankhauser.

“There is a danger that net zero could become discredited as a bad idea,” he argues. “But it can’t be a bad idea, because the science doesn’t give us too many options.”

That said, Frankhauser strongly agrees it is high time some ground rules were established. Attempts in this regard are being made, with the independent Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) – widely regarded as the gold standard for credible corporate climate goals – having late last year begun certifying companies’ net zero goals, after establishing criteria stipulating that carbon offsets should only be used as a last resort.

And, bemoaning the “deficit of credibility and a surplus of confusion over emissions reductions and net zero targets, with different meaning and different metrics”, UN Secretary General António Guterres has joined the fight against net zero related ‘greenwash’, too. Speaking at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow, he revealed the UN would soon be establishing a group of experts to propose clear standards to measure and analyse net zero commitments from non-state actors – i.e. businesses and organisations – with further details expected imminently.

Having sensed the growing criticism and scepticism around the concept of net zero, Fankhauser and his team have written a paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change which seeks to address many of the concerns head-on. Aptly titled ‘The meaning of net zero and how to get it right’, the paper does not seek – unlike the SBTi and UN – to police the credibility of climate targets. Rather, it offers a set of guiding principles for ensuring a net zero transition that is credible, fair, and environmentally sound.

“When people adopt a net zero target, I always feel that’s a good step in the right direction,” Fankhauser explains. “It’s an acknowledgement that we do have a problem we need to solve, and firms are communicating that they want to contribute to the solution. We need firms and countries to adopt net zero targets, so the question is: how can we help entities genuinely working towards net zero?”

While the paper begins by pointing out net zero is “intrinsically a scientific concept”, it acknowledges that it has necessarily become “a frame of reference through which global climate action against climate change can be structured and understood”. The bulk of the paper therefore focuses on the various social, political, economic, legal, behavioural, and technological implications that emerge from driving the transition to net zero. In short, it sets out seven key attributes – commandments, if you will – to help govern a successful, fair, and environmentally sound net zero transition.

“It isn’t a cookbook – i.e. if you want to do net zero, here’s steps one, two, three, and four – it’s more analytical than that,” explains Fankhauser, who is also an associate director of consultancy Vivid Economics, an inaugural member of the Climate Change Committee, and a former economist at the World Bank. “This is more of a conceptual overhead.”

Some of the seven key principles, which are explained at length in the paper, are perhaps more obvious than others, but are no less important. Firstly, as is becoming increasingly emphasised and understood, the paper argues emission reductions should be “front-loaded” – i.e. reduced as soon as possible, particularly given the urgency to halve global emissions in the current decade – with offsets and removals only utilised as a last resort. It adds that emissions reductions should be comprehensively targeted across every facet of the economy with haste, rather than focusing on one or two sectors to do the heavy lifting, and leaving gaps or wishful thinking when it comes to so-called hard-to-abate sectors.

Carbon removals and storage, either technologically or through nature-based solutions, should be sought and used cautiously, according to the paper. However, it stresses that such measures will be, to a greater or lesser extent, crucial to delivering net zero, and that clear, transparent and consistent rules, and governance frameworks will be needed to support the rollout of such projects and technologies.

Carbon offsets, too, will need effective regulation to ensure integrity, the paper argues, addressing what is arguably the biggest bone of contention among net zero detractors. “Despite appearances to the contrary, with a number of standards in place, and a large range of independent verification agencies, the current carbon offset market and its attendant governance mechanisms do not sufficiently address these concerns,” the paper states. “The scaled-up use of carbon offsets will have to be accompanied by a radical enhancement of their quality and scaled-up regulatory scrutiny.”

Crucially, the paper’s principles also stress key social considerations for delivering net zero emissions. Namely, that the transition, to garner support, should be fair and equitable, both for affected workers, but also by understanding that developed and developing countries will need to transition at different paces given their differing circumstances.

Net zero efforts should also take into account the many interlinked impacts at stake, including on the natural environment and ecosystems, as well as the communities dependent on them, it states. For example, nature-based climate solutions need to ensure they are supporting rather than damaging biodiversity, and where possible such projects should be designed by, or in partnership with, indigenous peoples.

And finally, perhaps most importantly at a time when some high profile politicians are attacking any and all efforts to deliver on net zero targets, the paper emphasises that achieving net zero is not just a climate necessity, but also a huge opportunity. Realising these opportunities requires large-scale changes in the way economies are run and investment and skills needed, but doing so is also key to a successful net zero transition.

Altogether, these seven commandments set out the key attributes which should guide all entities – political parties, investors, and businesses alike – in pursuit of their net zero targets, Fankhauser argues. But he also has some specific advice for those firms embarking on their net zero journey.

“I would never tell a business their net zero target is poor – I would always congratulate them for having one, and then help them implement it in a meaningful way,” he explains. “But [net zero] is all about understanding and reducing your own emissions… if everybody is serious about cutting their own emissions, Scope 3 [supply and vaule chain] emissions almost take care of themselves. But it does mean you have to reduce your emissions everywhere, and fast.”

Finally, he calls for businesses to impose “very clear standards” on the negative emissions project and carbon offsets used to tackle any residual emissions. “Be absolutely very, very picky about how you design and produce and secure those offsets.”

As the paper points out, there are clear risks in getting the net zero transition wrong. And with more and more companies and governments joining the fray by setting out their own climate ambitions, to varying levels credibility, those risks are only set to intensify until clear ground rules and oversight mechanisms are put in place. However, as the paper argues, the unrelenting nature of the latest climate science leaves no alternative option other than to deliver net zero emissions, if the most catastrophic climate scenarios are to be avoided. If the guiding principles set out in Fankhauser and his team’s paper are broadly taken on and adhered to by businesses and policymakers over the coming years, then, far from scepticism and distrust, there is every reason to believe net zero can become understood for what it should be – a concept underpinned by genuine integrity that promises to avert a rolling climate crisis and unleash greater prosperity for all.

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