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Accelerating the road to net-zero regulations

The UN High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities (HLEG) released its report 8 November recommending ways to bolster standards for net-zero targets, which to date have suffered from a lack of credibility and consistency.

Derik Broekhoff / Published on 11 November 2022

As the report notes, the HLEG’s recommendations “build on credible existing initiatives like Race to Zero and the Science Based Targets initiative” (both of which I have advised) to create a “universal definition of net zero” endorsed by the UN Secretary General.

The report sets a robust benchmark for net zero claims. What lies ahead, now, is to establish an effective accountability framework – and supportive regulatory environments – for realizing these claims.

Draw a red line around greenwashing

In the words of the group’s chair, Catherine McKenna, a key objective of the recommendations is to “draw a red line around greenwashing.” This means policing claims to ensure that actors actually adhere to a credible definition of net zero.

In short, a net zero target means committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (and remove CO2 from the atmosphere) in line with what is collectively required to achieve net zero emissions globally. Commit to – or do – less than this, and you cannot credibly claim to have a “net zero” target.

As a basic definition, this seems straightforward. Yet for companies and others acting individually, it sets a very high bar. Under the UN Race to Zero campaign, it has been highly encouraging to see so many companies, institutions and other “non-state actors” step up to a rigorous set of “starting line” criteria for net zero commitments.

The challenge now is implementation

But as COP27 Champion Dr Mahmoud Mohieldin indicated at the launch event for the HLEG report, the challenge now is implementation. For actors to make good on their commitments – including deep reductions in emissions by 2030 and thereafter – they will need support. And to truly galvanize collective action, we need “on-ramps” for actors that may not yet be ready to commit to the full set of net zero criteria.

This is where the HLEG’s final recommendation comes in: accelerating the road to regulation. Net zero regulations can serve two purposes. One is to guard against greenwashing and separate the wheat from the chaff, so that actors with solid commitments are not lumped in with those that don’t make the grade. The second is to connect voluntary climate action with national and global goals, providing clarity on how quickly actors in different sectors are expected to reduce emissions, what level of emissions may be offset with removals for different sectors, and what kinds of mitigation measures should be targeted to help advance just transition goals.

For this, as the HLEG notes, governments must “[articulate] a clear vision of the transition to net zero emissions” and “make good on their own net zero commitments.” The HLEG recommends convening a “Task Force on Net Zero Regulation” to help coordinate regulatory efforts internationally. This, and the continued efforts by civil society to accelerate voluntary action, should be key priorities in the coming year.

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