Net zero: the good, the bad and the ugly

Panellists convening for a “town hall” meeting on the third day of London Climate Action Week agreed that entities touting phony net zero targets must be immediately called out. By Charlotte Owen-Burge | June 28, 2021

“Net zero” is vital for holding actors to account but action must be more immediate and commitments must be scrutinized and authorized by a credible body, agreed panellists at a town hall meeting organized by UN High Level Climate Champions for COP25 and COP26 on June 28.

Leading civil society voices and key net zero initiatives discussed the need to get net zero right rather than get rid of it, delving into both the history and the future of the concept.

Farhana Yamin, lawyer, author, activist and Expert Adviser, Climate Vulnerable Forum discussed the history of net zero and a decade’s worth of “legal manoeuvring and savviness” from many people that helped integrate the term into the mainstream. Defending the language, she said the “power of vested interests” meant that “anything other than [net zero], such as a ‘zero emissions’, would have been vetoed.”

James Dyke, Assistant Director, Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter and co-author of Net zero is a dangerous trap, said that the rapidly increasing awareness of the concept and the progress that has been seen so far is positive. However, he cautioned against the “burn now, pay later” trap and argued that many net zero players –  “the ugly” –  were using the term for “blatant greenwashing”.

Richard Black, Honorary Research Fellow, Imperial College London and co-author of Net zero: despite the greenwash, it’s vital for tackling climate change, defended the concept arguing that there had “always been entities, from the fossil fuel industry to governments, that have tried to slow climate action – whether we have the net zero architecture or not.”

Net zero targets, he argued, gives us a “coherent theory of change…a long-term destination while we work out how to get there.”

“We don’t have time to debate theories of change,” he argued. While conceding there were “good, bad and ugly targets,” he said there was a key opportunity to highlight good – credible – ones with interim targets and annual reporting mechanisms. He said it was essential that those that were greenwashing were called out.

Defending the term further, he said net zero was useful for voters, shareholders and campaign groups to hold companies, and the like, to account. “If there is no target, there is nothing to hold them to account,” he said.

Science and governance

Tom Hale, Associate Professor in Public Policy, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford and chair of UN Race to Zero independent Expert Peer Review Group said that the success of net zero hinged on the right governance.

“How do we build political power to achieve positive change in the world? Winning is easy, but governing is harder,” he said.

He agreed reaching net zero was required as soon as possible but argued: “we won’t achieve what we need to without rules and accountability.” He said initiatives such as the Race to Zero, the world’s largest alliance of non-state actors committed to halving emissions by 2030, were “key to setting out the frontier of best practice and helping the world find out what this looks like.”

Moderator, the Guardian’s environment correspondent, Fiona Harvey challenged the robustness of the science behind net zero, asking Dyke whether the scientific calculations, that many targets are based upon, were reliable. Dyke argued that academics were playing a “dangerous game”.

“We’re talking about net zero policies beyond critical enquiry…every year we march beyond 1.5C. We’re on a target to meet 3C by the end of the century,” he said, adding: “in the absence of large scale immediate action, we’re not going to limit global temperatures to 1.5C.”

Black disagreed, arguing “1.5C is not over”. “We are at the time of maximum urgency, maximum feasibility and maximum political interest,” he said. On the topic of offsetting using nature-based solutions, he said: “science says that planting trees is not a silver bullet,” but added: “perhaps if there’s a bit that needs to be mopped at the end then we can use nature-based solutions for some of that.”

Black said that the cheapest option for the vast majority of sectors is to “cut emissions rather than plant their way out of it.” If an entity is serious, he argued, then the bulk of emissions reductions should be via reducing scope 3 emissions, i.e from products not the emissions created by extracting them.

Future of net zero

Tzeporah Berman, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at York University, International Program Director at Stand.Earth, and Chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative said: “considering we are at 420pmm we need to get beyond zero.”

She argued that companies and countries can be held to account by having these targets, but cautioned against the use of long-term targets. She said one of the biggest dangers of the net zero conversation is that it’s being “used to obfuscate and to justify the expansion of fossil fuel production.”

“We know that renewable energy is booming, but fossil fuel use is going up. In 2020, fossil fuels made up 80.2% of the global energy mix,” she said.

“All real plans need to show real term reductions in absolution emissions. If we’re going to be successful, we need to bring the conversation of absolute emissions targets now. We need a 6% year on year reduction [of emissions] if we are to meet Paris,” she said.

Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director, Greenpeace International said that the “legal and scientific drivers that brought [net zero] to the fore are still needed. But we are now in a power fight of whether net zero can be something that is a driver of change or if it is going to be captured by fossil fuel companies to keep doing what they’re doing.” She cited Total and Shell as examples of companies using these targets as a means to continue with business as usual.

Morgan also underlined the importance of short term targets and “what happens in the next couple of years.” She agreed with Black that net zero was an important way of holding companies and countries to account. Politicians, she argued, should no longer allow corporate powers to dominate.

“The COP platform will be a place where we see that battle, right, front and centre,” she added.

Nigel Topping, UN High Level Climate Champion for UK, COP26 reiterated the purpose of Race to Zero. He spoke about the ambition loop that drives the campaign: “you can only go so far before you have to have regulatory changes.” Progress underway is already making it easier for legislators to be bolder on climate, he said. He agreed with panellists that net zero targets can only be credible with robust short-term targets.

Gonzalo Munoz, UN High Level Climate Champion for Chile, COP25 spoke of the need for solidarity in this conversation, citing the Race to Resilience as a race that needs to be run just as fast. “Mobilizing towards a reduction of emissions, even recovering nature capacity, is just one part of the problem we’re facing,” he said.

Farhana Yamin closed the debate by highlighting the importance of climate justice and a just transition. “Fighting climate change helps us create a better world. And net zero is the lever to get us there,” she said.

To watch the full event, please click here.



COP27: Day 10

Across the two weeks, non-State actors offered a wide range of actions, announcements, and events across thematic areas. This included the launch of the African Cities Water Adaptation Fund, an African-led insurance commitment to provide cover for up to USD 14 billion in climate losses, and the Sharm-El-Sheik Adaptation Agenda in partnership with the COP27 Presidency.