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31 October 2021

How net zero is becoming the new normal

Net-zero emissions by mid-century is a catchy concept, but it won’t be enough without tough interim targets.

By Nick Ferris

Days ahead of the global UN climate summit in Glasgow, talk of achieving “net zero” by 2050 is widespread. Over three-quarters of global emissions are now covered by a net-zero target of some kind, which refers to the cancelling out of all greenhouse gases produced by human activity. But the term remains slippery. Not all net-zero targets are created equal and interim targets will also be necessary if dangerous levels of global warming are to be avoided.

New Statesman analysis of national climate pledges finds that some 78 per cent of global GDP, 79 per cent of global emissions, and 63 per cent of the world’s population is now covered by a net-zero pledge. 

Some 137 countries have placed themselves somewhere along the path to net zero. Eight nations — including most recently Australia, Saudi Arabia and Russia — have pledged to reach net zero; 58 are discussing the possibility of bringing it into law; 21 have the target in a policy document; and 32 countries — including the 27 EU member states — have net zero enshrined in law. 

In addition, some 18 countries - including Madagascar, Mali, Suriname and Bhutan - are already carbon sinks, shows data from non-profit the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). This means they absorb more emissions than they produce each year either because they have extremely low emissions or high forest cover. 

In the private sector, some 616 of the world’s 2,000 largest publicly traded companies now have a net zero pledge, says ECIU. It is hard to track the exact number of pledges being made by smaller companies, but it is increasing all the time. E-commerce giant Amazon, for example, recently announced that more than 200 companies have joined its Climate Pledge, to reach net zero by 2040.

Pledges announced in recent months have led Climate Action Tracker (CAT), which tracks both long-term and interim pledges, to find that global temperature could be limited to between 2–2.4 degrees Celsius.

Yet herein lies the problem. The Paris Agreement calls for global heating to be limited to “well below 2 degrees Celsius", and preferably to limit to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that simply meeting a 2050 deadline for net-zero emissions is not enough; reducing emissions by 45 per cent on 2010 levels by 2030 will also be essential to keep 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach.

Long-term goals are important.  Yet, most of the pledges announced by governments lack detail and many seem almost meaningless. Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia have declared their intention to reach net zero, but have failed to include any ambition to limit the vast amounts of oil, gas and coal they produce and export around the world. Meanwhile China, the world's largest annual emitter, has only pledged to reach net zero by 2060.

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Even in the UK, where the commitment to net zero is enshrined in law, the government’s recent net zero strategy lacked the necessary financial support, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Autumn budget pledged billions to prop up new roads and support domestic air travel

The negotiators of the Paris Agreement realised the importance of ensuring interim as well as long-term targets, and introduced a ratchet mechanism. Every five years countries have to submit increasingly ambitious goals in their so-called Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs). Some 146 countries, out of 200 that adopted the Paris Agreement, have proposed or submitted new NDCs ahead of Cop26. But of those analysed by CAT, only two-thirds actually include increased emissions targets for 2030.

Together, the new NDCs announced ahead of Cop26 will only take an additional 7.5 per cent off annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2030, compared with targets announced six years previously (Cop26 was delayed a year because of Covid), estimates the latest “Emissions Gap” report from the UN. The report also underlines that just 20 per cent of Covid-recovery investments globally are being spent on “clean” projects. 

Pledging to meet net zero helps bolster hope and also generates a camaraderie that has been lacking on the international stage in recent years. But alone, these targets are nowhere near enough to bring soaring emissions under control.

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