Is the world making real progress towards net zero emissions?

A Stop sign stands in front of the Neurath lignite power plant of German utility RWE, west of Cologne, Germany, January 16, 2020. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
explainer

A Stop sign stands in front of the Neurath lignite power plant of German utility RWE, west of Cologne, Germany, January 16, 2020. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

What’s the context?

Many countries and companies have set 'net zero' targets to curb global warming - but most have been criticised as insufficient

  • Net Zero Tracker sees uptick in nations setting goals
  • Yet cities and companies are lagging behind countries
  • Experts question credibility of most net-zero targets

About three-quarters of countries have now set the net-zero emissions targets that scientists say must be met by mid-century to keep global warming to agreed limits. But putting them into practice is another matter, as cities and companies lag behind.

A 2023 update by the Net Zero Tracker research initiative notes that 148 nations and the European Union now have a net-zero goal, up from 124 in December 2020, indicating "a clear consensus to curtail greenhouse gas emissions to net zero".

But the extent of action taken at the national level has yet to be matched by states, regions, cities and businesses, which is likely to hinder progress on cutting emissions at the pace and scale needed to meet wider climate goals, the initiative warned.

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"Implementation requires all hands on deck," said Thomas Hale, a professor of public policy at the University of Oxford's Blavatnik School of Government.

"By incentivising and supporting companies and sub-national governments to set rigorous net-zero targets and plans, countries can boost the credibility of national climate goals."

The report also cast doubt on the credibility of targets, noting only "very limited" signs of improvement on things like the use of carbon offsetting and financing for fossil fuels within net-zero strategies over the past year.

Why does net zero matter?

Now a common term in the world of climate action, scientists and policy makers say reaching net-zero emissions is key to keeping us safe from harm as the planet warms.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said man-made carbon dioxide emissions need to fall by 43% by 2030, from 2010 levels, and reach "net zero" by mid-century to give the world a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

However, based on countries' current climate commitments, global greenhouse gas emissions will rise by 10.6% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, according to a U.N. report in October 2022. 

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nearly 200 countries said they would act to curb the rise in global average temperatures to "well below" 2C above pre-industrial times and strive to keep it to a ceiling of 1.5C.

But the world has already heated up by about 1.2C and is set for warming of close to 2.5C this century, even if current pledges to rein in still-rising emissions by 2030 are implemented, researchers estimate.

In May, the World Meteorological Organization said global average temperatures are more likely than not to breach 1.5C in the next five years, on a temporary basis.

Scientists say surpassing 1.5-2C of warming for a longer period would bring worsening extreme weather and potentially catastrophic sea level rise, making some parts of the planet uninhabitable and fuelling hunger and migration.

These risks - and mounting public pressure to act on climate change threats - are why a fast-rising number of countries, companies and others are now promising to cut their planet-warming emissions to net zero by 2050 or soon after.

If the mid-century net-zero goals set so far are actually met, global warming could be kept to about 1.8C, analysts say.

But some climate activists have criticised 2050 net-zero goals for enabling countries and companies to postpone emissions reductions until a vague far-off date.

A visitor is seen at the new solar power plant of the South African arm of Heineken, the largest freestanding solar plant powering a brewery in South Africa, at the company's Sedibeng, Midvaal brewery in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 26, 2022. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

A visitor is seen at the new solar power plant of the South African arm of Heineken, the largest freestanding solar plant powering a brewery in South Africa, at the company's Sedibeng, Midvaal brewery in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 26, 2022. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

A visitor is seen at the new solar power plant of the South African arm of Heineken, the largest freestanding solar plant powering a brewery in South Africa, at the company's Sedibeng, Midvaal brewery in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 26, 2022. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

What is net zero?

Achieving net-zero emissions isn't the same as eliminating all emissions.

It means ensuring any human-produced carbon dioxide (CO2) or other greenhouse gases that can't be avoided or locked up are removed from the atmosphere some other way.

This can be done naturally, such as by restoring forests that suck CO2 out of the air. It can also be done using technology that captures and stores emissions from power plants and factories or directly pulls CO2 from the atmosphere.

Planting more trees is a popular way to absorb and store more carbon, but human-made technologies that perform the same job remain expensive and have yet to be deployed on a large-scale.

Scientists say carbon "removals", in any form, cannot substitute for cutting emissions as fast as possible - although some removals are likely to be needed and deployed to help curb rising temperatures.

There is fierce debate around the growing enthusiasm for carbon offsetting - where governments, companies and individuals pay for their emissions to be compensated by clean energy and conservation projects that reduce CO2 emissions elsewhere. Those emissions reductions are then counted as part of the government, company or individual's own carbon-cutting efforts.

Who has committed to net zero?

At a country level, the picture is looking fairly rosy, according to the latest Net Zero Tracker report from the Britain-based Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, Data-Driven EnviroLab, NewClimate Institute and Oxford Net Zero. But things are advancing more slowly among businesses and cities.

National net-zero targets now cover 92% of global GDP, up from 68% in December 2020, and represent at least 88% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with 72 goals - or about three-quarters of the emissions covered by national goals - enshrined in law or policy documents.

Large cities are lagging, with 252 having set a net-zero target, accounting for over one-third of the 2.1 billion people living in cities with populations above 500,000. But 934 have yet to do so.

In the corporate sector, net zero has now become the norm, with almost two-thirds of the annual revenue of the world's largest 2,000 companies covered by a net zero target.

Nonetheless, 37% of the world's largest companies have yet to set any kind of greenhouse gas mitigation target.

Europe is doing best in terms of the proportion of companies with net-zero targets, with 79% covered, compared with 49% in North America.

But the analysis flagged that only 4% of company net-zero commitments meet the revised criteria set out in June 2022 by the U.N. "Race to Zero" campaign. Those include coverage of all greenhouse gases emitted in the supply chain, clear conditions for the use of carbon offsets, rolling out immediate emissions-cutting measures and reporting each year on interim and longer-term targets.

In addition, a rising number of companies - about a quarter - plan to use carbon dioxide removal to cut emissions in their value chains, it notes.

The number of fossil fuel companies setting net-zero emissions targets has risen sharply over the past year, to 75 of the world's largest 112 firms, but most fail to address key concerns, making them "largely meaningless", Net Zero Stocktake noted.

How do we set a credible net zero target?

The World Resources Institute (WRI) and the 2050 Pathways Platform - which work with governments and others on their climate commitments - say cutting emissions within national boundaries should be the priority, with efforts to offset what remains considered only after that.

To be credible, net-zero targets should cover all greenhouse gases, including methane, and all economic sectors, as well as international aviation and shipping, WRI says.

Plans for net-zero emissions should be achieved by 2050 or earlier, with the highest-emitting countries doing the most, fastest - and the targets should be crafted in consultation with those they will affect and clearly communicated, WRI recommends.

Company net-zero targets often cover very different sources of emissions, with different baselines - and can be challenging to compare, although the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has released guidelines to help remedy that.

In 2022, U.N. chief António Guterres launched a high-level expert group to help develop stronger and clearer standards for net-zero pledges by businesses, investors and local governments, as well as to verify progress towards them and accelerate their implementation through new rules and regulations.

"We are making progress but we are still too far from where we need to be," it said in a November report.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling, Editing by Kieran Guilbert)


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