The Race to Zero strengthens and clarifies campaign criteria

As net zero commitments proliferate, the refined criteria outline the minimum standard for initiatives of businesses, investors, cities, regions and universities for robust and credible net zero commitments. By Climate Champions | April 29, 2021
  • The UN-supported Race to Zero campaign – the largest alliance of non-state actors committing to achieving net zero emissions before 2050 – has published its first annual review of its criteria, including refined criteria and an interpretation guide
  • As net zero commitments proliferate, the refined criteria outline the minimum standard for initiatives of businesses, investors, cities, regions and universities for robust and credible net zero commitments
  • Critical clarifications and additions in this iteration include a stronger emphasis on the need for clear interim targets, a focus on immediate action, and enhanced specificity around the language related to residual emissions, sources and credits
  • The process was chaired by the University of Oxford, reviewed by the Race to Zero’s independent Expert Peer Review Group, and included consultation with and input from over 200 experts in non-state and subnational climate action from around the world

With six months to go before COP26, non-state actors are showing increasing convergence around Race to Zero as the commonly held credible minimum standard for net zero commitments. Now, nearly one year since the campaign was launched on World Environment Day 2020, Race to Zero is publishing its refined criteria which all Partner initiatives must meet through a rigorous application process, reviewed by an independent Expert Peer Review Group

Between January and March 2021, the University of Oxford helped facilitate this review process by chairing eight online consultation sessions with 30 presentations from academics, practitioners, and experts, summarised here. Over 200 participants joined these sessions, including representatives from the networks and initiatives that are part of Race to Zero, and a larger set of individuals with expertise in non-state and subnational climate action who are not affiliated with the Race to Zero.

The review process honoured the commitment made at launch by the Race to Zero campaign in June 2020 to review its criteria on an annual basis to ensure that these are keeping pace with science and best practice, and to help the entire climate action community converge around robust approaches in line with halving emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050 at the very latest.  

Owing to the fact that the concept of net zero is complex and the science and best practices are developing fast, this criteria update is part of an ongoing process in partnership with the climate action community. As a next step in this process, the Champions will continue an expanded stakeholder engagement process to identify and gather feedback on implementation and accountability around non-state actions. The new criteria take effect on June 1, consultations on criteria and accountability will be convened throughout the European summer, and will be reflected in the campaign’s work-plans in advance of COP26.

Dr Thomas Hale, Chair of the Expert Peer Review Group and Associate Professor in Global Public Policy, Blavatnik School of Government, said “In addition to ensuring credibility, the Race to Zero criteria promote learning and ‘upward convergence’ across the community of actors setting net zero targets. The criteria help catalyze actors to come up to the frontier of best practices, to identify common challenges and questions, and to help advance that frontier going forward. It’s important to continue developing what needs to happen to accelerate our transition towards a decarbonised economy, whilst also championing these robust  efforts already underway.”

Dr Angel Hsu, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Environment, Energy and Ecology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said “Any company, city, university etc. can claim that it is going net zero by 2050, but joining Race to Zero is a clear stamp of the credibility of such a claim. The campaign is a powerful mechanism to bring these non-state actors to the starting line and drives convergence across non-state actors for what robust net zero plans look like. That said, credible net zero pledges will only deliver a zero carbon future in line with a 1.5C pathway if they are enacted meaningfully and swiftly, so it’s great to see Race to Zero honing in on the Plan and Proceed components of the criteria.”

Enhanced specificity of climate commitments

The review found that the core principles of the criteria – pledge, plan, proceed, and publish – were robust and in line with climate science. The major changes, therefore, were critical additions to include a stronger emphasis on:

  • actors demonstrating how they will contribute towards or beyond their fair share of halving emissions by 2030;
  • additional clarity around the need for members to include all scopes of emissions (Scopes 1, 2 and 3) in their emissions reduction targets;
  • enhanced specificity around the language of residual emissions, sources and credits, with a critical emphasis on abatement measures; and
  • the introduction of leadership practices on equity and empowerment, to reiterate the importance of operationalizing principles of equity in pledges and actions, as well as encouraging broader information sharing, capacity building and access to finance. 

Initiatives are reviewed on an annual basis by the Expert Peer Review Group, and those initiatives or their members who fail to meet these criteria will be removed from the campaign.

As per the ECIU and Oxford’s ‘Taking Stock’ report last month, “the existence of a plan (or evidence that the company is working to develop one), nearer-term targets to ensure action proceeds, commitment to publish annual progress reports, and clarity about the Scopes of activities and emissions covered are among the key details that can give credibility to a net zero target”.

The campaign has produced the following as a result of the review:

  • The Criteria 2.0 document provides an updated outline of the criteria for the Campaign,  which will come into force as of June 1st.
  • To complement the updated criteria document, an Interpretation Guide was produced offering guidance on how to read these criteria.
  • To compare the specific updates made through this process of criteria refinement, the  Summary of Changes document offers a clear overview of the additional specificity and further edits made.
  • In addition to these documents, the consultation process – and general context of the increasingly confusing landscape of net zero claims – emphasised the need for clarity on terminology. We have therefore put together a Lexicon which provides definitions for how Race to Zero and the Climate Champions team use certain key terms.
  • Based on the above outcome documents, from May 20th Partners applying to join Race to Zero will be required to use this Updated Application form.

In addition to these criteria updates, the High-Level Climate Champions shared their position on the involvement of oil and gas* companies in Race to Zero. Specifically, to join Race to Zero, oil & gas, and integrated energy companies will not only need to commit to an initiative that is part of Race to Zero, they will be required to  have an approved Science Based Target (SBT) based on the oil and gas methodology in order to be considered for the campaign. This methodology is still in development.  

In the meantime, the Champions will engage with all sectors via multi-stakeholder dialogues with companies, the science community, investors, civil society and policy makers, to identify barriers and opportunities to accelerate the transition to a 1.5°-aligned world, and encourage oil and gas companies to strengthen their transition plans in line with what the science requires.

Gonzalo Munoz, Chilean High Level Climate Champion for COP25, said: “Net zero has become the guiding star for climate ambition, with net zero commitments growing exponentially from companies, cities, regions, investors and universities across the world. Our mission with Race to Zero is to maintain the integrity of these efforts, and firmly establish the minimum floor for climate ambition with rigorous criteria and a transparent process. Ensuring the credibility of climate action is crucial if we are to deliver a zero carbon world in time.”

Net zero the north star for climate action

National governments cannot single-handedly deliver the promise of Paris: we need a global economy transition to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 at the very latest.

The ever more urgent scientific findings, and a growing recognition of the strategic and economic costs of inaction, has prompted an exponential increase in the number of net zero pledges. In 2019, such pledges covered 16% of the global economy; only two years later, today, net zero pledges cover over two-thirds (68%). However, as the number of ‘net’ zero pledges multiply, they contain inconsistent terminology, transparency and rigour. It is therefore imperative to distinguish net zero targets which are aligned with the science and will help us achieve a 1.5C-aligned pathway, from less  pledges which confuse the landscape further. The Race to Zero is designed to do just that, applying a clear, transparent, science-based criteria as the minimum bar for all stakeholders 

The pace of proliferation of meaningful net zero targets presents a critical window to align with science. Credible net zero plans, with robust interim targets, are not only vital for reducing emissions, but will also be essential for a just transition, creating sustainable jobs, building resilience and mitigating systemic risks which exacerbate inequality. 

What is still needed?

As science changes and technologies improve, we must take into consideration who has access to them. The concept of fair shares within Race to Zero aims to recognise the complications for certain sectors over others. Extending the metaphor of a Race, those who can run faster must do so.

The campaign has established a common starting line or minimum floor for credible climate ambition – and we recognise that many actors have much further that they need to go, both on climate action and on other related areas of their operations. Some actors can and will race faster than others towards the finish line. 

Nigel Topping, UK High Level Climate Champion for COP26, said: “Race to Zero is rallying non-state actors across regions and across society to join forces in racing to halve emissions by 2030. We’re constantly striving to improve our understanding of how to achieve what the science dictates is needed, and we need everyone, everywhere, to join us in building a healthy, resilient, zero-carbon world.”

Media Contact:

Matthew Phillips:  / +44 7834 699991

To see a full list of Race to Zero members, please visit the Global Climate Action Portal.


*For the purposes of the target validation by the SBTi oil & gas includes, but is not limited to, integrated oil & gas companies, integrated gas companies, exploration and production pure players, refining and marketing pure players, oil products distributors, gas distributors and gas retailers.


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