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Net zero targets – opportunities and pitfalls

Setting net zero targets has become a hot topic for framing climate ambition. SEI’s Derik Broekhoff explains what the concept of net zero is all about.

Derik Broekhoff / Published on 22 September 2020

Where did net zero targets come from?

The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees, released in late 2018, stated that in order to limit global warming by the end of the century by 1.5 degrees, global CO2 emission would have to reach net zero by 2050. To do so requires two types of response: to stop releasing CO2 by cutting emissions, and to balance any remaining emissions by removing an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Since then, the concept has evolved so that actors at the national, sub-national or organizational level have started setting net zero targets. The notion is that if we have to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 at the global level, this should be reflected in action taken by countries, regions, cities, businesses, investors, and other organizations.

In the Race to Zero Campaign, the so-called High-Level Champions for Climate Action, the UK’s Nigel Topping and Chile’s Gonzalo Munoz, are working to gather non-state actors and build alliances committed to reaching net zero emissions. The goal of the campaign is to galvanize efforts and consolidate quantified commitments, bring consistency to them, and make an announcement on these aggregated climate commitments at COP26 in November 2021.

campaign logo of the Race To Zero campaign

The High Level Champions for Climate Action have started a campaign to mobilise businesses, cities, regions and investors for setting net zero targets. Image: Race To Zero

Who is setting net zero targets?

A number of countries have set net zero targets, ranging from Bhutan to New Zealand, though not all of them have the target enshrined in law.

More than 400 cities and states or provinces have also set such a target, like the US state of Washington. More than 1000 companies across the globe have set a net zero target, while some institutional investors have committed to transitioning their investment portfolios to net zero emissions by 2050.

City of Copenhagen

The Danish capital of Copenhagen aims to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025. It is also part of the ICLEI network, which in turn is a partner in the Race to Zero campaign. Photo: Febiyan / Unsplash

What does it mean to set a net zero target?

Setting a net zero target means different things for different actors, which are being actively debated. For instance, it is not clear whether a net zero emissions target includes only CO2 emissions, or all greenhouse gases. It is also unclear whether a subnational actor’s target should cover so-called scope 3 emissions  – indirect emissions occurring outside an actor’s organizational boundaries, including consumption-based emissions – as opposed to just direct emissions.

“Achieving net zero emissions globally will require collective action. Arguably, single commitments are contingent on the rest of the world raising its ambition in parallel, so it may not be enough to simply set a target – lobbying for others to do the same could also be required.”

Why are net zero targets so tricky?

They bring together many different issues that have been hotly debated in climate policy for many years, and are therefore not easy to resolve, such as what is the proper role for carbon offsets? One way to balance out emissions is to use carbon offsets, meaning investments in projects that reduce, avoid or remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. But for many reasons that I’ve explained in more detail elsewhere, carbon offsets are not straightforward. One question is, what emissions are “allowed” to be offset under a net zero target – all of them? Or only “residual” emissions – i.e. those emissions that remain after all other options to reduce emissions have been seized. There is also the question of what kinds of offsets should count, in both the near and long term.

Another key question is, what makes for a fair and credible net zero target at the sub-global level? The net zero concept is intimately connected to what is needed on the global level. But there are a myriad ways in which a global target could be allocated to individual countries, subnational, and non-state actors. A fair allocation will depend as much on equity as on what “science” tell us is possible.

Furthermore, achieving net zero emissions globally will require collective action. Arguably, single commitments are contingent on the rest of the world raising its ambition in parallel, so it may not be enough to simply set a target – lobbying for others to do the same could also be required.

Last but not least, governance questions remain around how targets can be defined and operationalized.

“Despite the potential pitfalls around the use of carbon offsets, or distraction from collective policy action, the growing adoption of these targets on an organisational, city or regional level – along with efforts to clarify how they are defined – should be strongly welcomed.”

With so many open questions, what is the benefit of setting net zero targets?

The ambiguity around net zero targets makes them susceptible to a number of pitfalls. Already, for example, a number of organizations are suggesting that if offsets are used, they should only involve mitigation actions that remove CO2 from the atmosphere – because that is what science says will need to happen by mid-century. But such an overly formalistic interpretation of the “science” means that crucial actions to reduce GHG emissions today could get overlooked.

Another potential pitfall is that these kinds of targets could distract from necessary policy action. While we want to recognize and encourage the ambition of individual actors setting net zero targets, we also need to keep our eyes on the prize of collective policy action. It is unrealistic for any actor to think they can truly reach net zero emissions unilaterally. Their efforts will ultimately depend on our collective response to climate change, and actively advocating for such a response should be part of any recognized net-zero strategy.

All that said, setting a net zero target is a strong benchmark for climate ambition. It can be very instructive for an organization (or company, city, or country) to analyse its emissions and consider how its actions should align with global efforts to reach net zero emissions. Such an exercise can indicate, at a tangible, “nuts and bolts” level, the individual and collective actions required to help avert the climate crisis. So, despite the potential pitfalls, the growing adoption of these targets – along with efforts to clarify how they are defined – should be strongly welcomed.


Derik Broekhoff

Senior Scientist


Topics and subtopics
Climate : Climate policy
Related centres
SEI US, SEI Headquarters
Africa, Asia, Europe, Americas

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