Net-zero targets set by countries are vague and the details behind the ‘net-zero’ label differ enormously|Photo: Swati Joshi

Paris Agreement can be compromised by vague net-zero claims

The pace at which countries are declaring net-zero emission policies is creating a false sense of security, warn scientists

The race to reach the ‘net-zero’ target by mid-century has been promised by more than 110 countries. Recently, the United States, China, the European Union (EU), Microsoft and an alliance of European airports were added to the list. According to an estimate by the United Nations, more than 65% of global CO2 emission falls under such pledges.

But there is a glitch. The definition of ‘net-zero’ differs enormously amongst nations. Moreover, there is no clarity on how much offsetting might be required or can be done.

A group of scientists from Imperial College London, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and the University of New England have warned about this lack of transparency in an article published in the journal Nature, titled ‘Net-zero Emissions Targets Are Vague: Three Ways to Fix’.

Countries have their own definitions of ‘net-zero’

According to the researchers, the plans put up by nations to reach ‘net-zero’ targets are “hard to compare” and the details behind the ‘net-zero’ label differ enormously.  While the EU’s net-zero announcement targets all greenhouse gases by 2050, China’s net-zero plan focuses on balancing only CO2 emissions by 2060.

According to the Paris Agreement, three strategies are required to meet the net-zero greenhouse gas emissions – rapid and large reductions in CO2, additional reduction in non-CO2 greenhouse gases and boosting strategies to remove CO2 from the air.

The Nature analysis set out three key aspects of net-zero goals that require clarification. These include the scope of the net-zero plans, how these plans are sufficient and a solid framework to achieve net-zero and negative net-zero.

According to the researchers, the UN COP 26 international climate summit in Glasgow in November might be an important platform to clarify what net-zero really means.

The stakes are too high

Sometimes, the targets set by nations do not aim to reduce emissions, but compensate for them with offsets, the article noted. “Critics could argue that vague targets are better than none. But the stakes are too high to take comfort in mere announcements,” it added.

A recent study also pointed out that while countries are making efforts to cut carbon dioxide emission since the commencement of the Paris Agreement this year, the actions are not “large-scale enough” yet and emissions are still increasing in many countries. 

The article advocated that it is not compulsory for countries to have the same choices to reach the target, but without transparency, neither the strategies nor the impact behind net-zero targets can be evaluated.

Consistency, clarity and accuracy are essential

The article pointed out that while terms like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘climate neutral’ are sometimes used for net-zero CO2 and net-zero greenhouse gas emission, other times they might have a different meaning. It recommends that consistency, clarity and accuracy are essential to tackle the climate crisis.

It also advocated cutting emissions locally rather than depending on the offset. Offsets are purchased reductions or removals fulfilled by someone else, elsewhere.

“Continued reliance on offsets might become increasingly unrealistic and ultimately unfair to countries that provide the offsets, but cannot count those actions towards their own targets,” the article explained.

Net-zero targets are not endpoints

The article stated that net-zero targets become more credible if they consist of milestones, an implementation plan and a statement about a longer-term plan for either sustaining net-zero or going net negative.

“They (net-zero targets) are themselves milestones to meeting net-negative emissions targets further down the road,” it added.

It recommended that countries planning to reach a net-negative future need to plan for it now to reach net-zero globally. Finland and Sweden have set their targets for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 and 2045 respectively and going net-negative thereafter, the article stated.

Checklist for rigorous and clear net-zero plans

The analysis included a “checklist for rigorous and clear net-zero plans.”

These are:

• What global temperature goal does this plan contribute to (to stabilise global temperature, or see it peak and decline)?
• What is the target date for net zero?
• Which greenhouse gases are considered?
• How are greenhouse gases aggregated (GWP-100 or another metric)?
• What is the extent of the emissions (over which territories, time frames or activities)?
• What are the relative contributions of reductions, removals and offsets?
• How will risks be managed around removals and offsets?

• What principles are being applied?
• Would the global climate goal be achieved if everyone did this?
• What are the consequences for others if these principles are applied universally?
• How will your target affect others’ capacity to achieve net zero, and their pursuit of other Sustainable Development Goals?

Road map
• What milestones and policies will support achievement?
• What monitoring and review system will be used to assess progress and revise the target?
• Will net zero be maintained, or is it a step towards net negative?

Targets set today are the stepping stone towards a safer world

The authors recommend the use of research to improve all three aspects in the “checklist for rigorous and clear net-zero plans.” Research will help to understand the wider social and ecological consequences of the actions taken by the countries to reach the net-zero target, it said.

Not only economists or natural scientists but also ethicists and social scientists should be involved in deciding the fairness of net-zero targets of the country to have a different perspective, it emphasized.

To keep track of the milestones achieved during the process, the analysis advocated reviewing Nationally Determined Contributors (NDC) every five years by the UN Companies should also have a review process in place to assess the progress, it added.