Net zero climate targets

In the lead-up to the Canadian federal election in October, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised legally binding targets for Canada to be at net zero emissions by 2050. Specifically, they promised:

  • “We will set legally-binding, five-year milestones, based on the advice of the experts and consultations with Canadians, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050”
  • “We will exceed Canada’s 2030 emissions goal”

Ignoring for now how we’re not on track for the 2030 target, let’s consider what “net zero” means. Essentially, the idea is that through a combination of emission reductions, carbon offsets, and negative emissions through CO2 removal (through air capture or bio-energy with carbon capture) Canada will no longer produce a net positive contribution to the accumulation of greenhouse gases including CO2 into the atmosphere.

The most credible way to reach net zero is to actually end fossil fuel production, import, and use. That we could call “true zero” and it would be a better kind of target for ambitious organizations. It would be focusing because of the long-lived character of infrastructure. If the University of Toronto, for instance, was to be true zero by 2050 then it would need to stop putting natural gas boilers into new buildings wherever they would be expected to run past that date. Similarly, they would need to stop buying gasoline-powered vehicles and everything else that depends on fossil fuels for energy, and do so early enough for everything they operate to be replaced with a climate-safe alternative before the deadline. This is a much more radical and demanding idea. When I promoted a “true zero” promise as a plank in the new “Beyond Divestment” campaign at U of T, which was planning to offer the administration the same easy escape of net zero by hoping to fund reductions elsewhere and hoping for carbon removal at scale, the idea was rejected by the campaign organizers as too demanding and incompatible with pledges being made elsewhere.

The reason to promise “net zero” instead — as a country or a university — is in the optimistic case a sincere belief that offsets and negative emissions can be meaningful and significant. In what’s perhaps a more plausible case, it’s a way of avoiding the politically intolerable suggestion that we’re actually going to stop using fossil fuels to combat climate change. That avoids antagonizing the industry and its supporters, while placating those who may not be paying much attention with the belief that this is equivalent to true decarbonization. It is telling that fossil fuel corporations also like net zero targets, since they allow the current leadership to continue with expanding production and emissions while leaving the problem for someone else to fix later. That position is delusional because every year of delay in starting with true decarbonization makes it far harder to stabilize at any temperature limit while raising the cost of doing so by requiring the projects we built to be shut down before the end of their economic lifespans and increasing how quickly emissions must be cut when we finally get serious.

In the case of the Canadian promise, it seems like another manifestation of Trudeau’s determination to promise action to protect the climate in the long term as a way to legitimize and justify actions that worsen the problem while they actually hold power. While in office, you approve major new fossil fuel infrastructure projects, while saying with no authority to do so that future governments will counteract those choices. This proposition doesn’t even make sense in the short term because of that long-lived infrastructure problem. No oil pipeline, LNG facility, or bitumen sands mine that is built in 2020 is intended to be shut down before 2050. And so, today’s pro-fossil expansion policies directly and immediately contradict the net zero target. It’s another sense in which we have been drawn toward shadow solutions by our unwillingness to take the actions really required to stabilize the climate. It’s a sign of how little Canadians understand the problem, and how much they choose to believe what they prefer over what is supported by evidence, that many have accepted such promises as evidence of commitment and seriousness on the issue.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

51 thoughts on “Net zero climate targets”

  1. So what does Harvard’s ‘net-zero’ pledge mean?
    By Emily Pontecorvo | News | May 7th 2020

    “I think the idea is, at the end of the day, all the companies in the portfolio would be net-zero,” said Georges Dyer, executive director of the Intentional Endowments Network, a nonprofit that helps endowed institutions make their investments more sustainable. While he doesn’t advocate for or against divestment or any other specific strategy, Dyer pointed out that Harvard’s net-zero target has the potential to address the climate crisis across the whole economy, including real estate and natural resources, and not just the fossil fuel sector.

    A net-zero portfolio won’t be as simple as only investing in companies with net-zero pledges, since different companies have different definitions of net-zero. Indeed, in his letter to faculty, Bacow admitted that Harvard was not yet sure how it would measure or reduce the endowment’s footprint, explaining the plan would require “developing sophisticated new methods” for both. In a statement shared with Grist, the Harvard Management Company, which manages the endowment, said it would work to “understand and influence” each company’s “exposure to, and planned mitigation of, climate-related risks.” It plans to develop interim emissions targets to ensure success.

    Harvard isn’t alone in trying to figure this out. The Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance is a group of institutional investors that was formed at the United Nations Climate Summit last fall. Its members have committed to net-zero investment portfolios by 2050, promising to set interim emissions targets in five-year increments and to issue progress reports along the way. But the group is still looking for answers on how to actually accomplish these goals.

  2. Climate change: Study pours cold water on oil company net zero claims

    Claims by oil and gas companies that they are curbing their carbon emissions in line with net zero targets are overstated, according to a new review.

    The independent analysis of six large European corporations acknowledges they have taken big steps on CO2 recently.

    In April, Shell became the latest to announce ambitious plans to be at net zero for operational emissions by 2050.

    But the authors say none of the companies are yet aligned with the 1.5C temperature goal.

    Scientists argue that the global temperature must not rise by more than 1.5C by the end of the century if the world is to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

    The research has been carried out by the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI), an investor-led group which investigates how companies are preparing for the move to a low-carbon economy.

    Going net zero means removing as many emissions as are produced.

    TPI found that the relationship between the oil and gas industry and climate change has evolved rapidly over the last three years.

  3. For decades, people have asked me why the oil companies don’t just become solar companies. They don’t for the same reason that Facebook doesn’t behave decently: an oil company’s core business is digging stuff up and burning it, just as Facebook’s is to keep people glued to their screens. Digging and burning is all that oil companies know how to do—and why the industry has spent the past thirty years building a disinformation machine to stall action on climate change. It’s why—with the evidence of climate destruction growing by the day—the best that any of them can offer are vague pronouncements about getting to “net zero by 2050”—which is another way of saying, “We’re not going to change much of anything anytime soon.” (The American giants, like ExxonMobil, won’t even do that.)

    Total, the French oil company, has made the 2050 pledge, but it is projected to increase fossil-fuel production by twelve percent between 2018 and 2030. These are precisely the years when we must cut emissions in half, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to have any chance of meeting the vital targets set by the Paris climate agreement, which aim to hold the planet’s temperature increase as close as possible to one and a half degrees Celsius. The next six months will be crucial as nations prepare coronavirus recovery plans. Because effective climate planning at this moment will require keeping most oil, coal, and gas reserves in the ground, the industry will resist fiercely.

  4. CURWOOD: Why is Harvard’s recent carbon neutrality by 2050 announcement controversy for for many activists? And how do you personally feel about their decision? And of course, I should mention that in full disclosure, it’s kind of personal for both of us as we spent our undergrad years there.

    MCKIBBEN: I don’t think that Harvard’s announcement’s controversial for activists, I don’t know anybody who’s anything but disgusted by it. I mean, look, Harvard has long since forfeited the idea that they’re going to be a leader on any of this stuff. And now they’re not even willing to be a follower. Announcing that you’re going to do something in 2050 at this point, Steve, you know, the science of all of this well enough to know that’s not very helpful. The game will be decided long before then we need people stepping up and acting now. And I gotta say Harvard has been a tremendous disappointment, but whatever. The rest of the world is going on around them. The other Ivy’s are, many of them, busily divesting the biggest universities on the planet are divesting like the UC system. And the same day that Harvard made its announcement that it was going to wait till 2050, the only institution with more prestige and status, Oxford, said we’re all in with fossil fuel divestment. So I’ll take that.

  5. Xi’s carbon neutrality vow will reshape China’s five-year plan

    Chinese policymakers expected to focus on Xi Jinping’s radical new climate targets at plenum on new five-year plan.

    Government departments drawing up the document were scheduled to complete the first draft by April, but Xi’s announcement to the United Nations that China will offset all its emissions within 40 years meant they must integrate the new climate goals.

    Before September, few expected China to promise more ambitious curbs on climate-warming greenhouse gases over the next five years, with policy documents signalling Beijing’s intent to make energy security and the economy its top priorities. It was also expected to go on a new coal-fired power construction spree, but government scholars have been forced to revise their old drafts.

    Experts say China needs to bring the share of coal in its total energy mix from 58 percent last year to less than 50 percent by 2025, and provide enhanced support for technology like carbon capture.

    It could start by setting an absolute emissions cap for the first time, said Zou Ji, head of the Energy Foundation China, which has been involved in five-year plan research.

  6. Reaching UK net zero target cheaper than we thought, says climate adviser

    “Overall, the cost is surprisingly low – it’s cheaper than even we thought last year when we made our assessments. Net zero is relatively low-cost across the economy,” he said. “But that rests on action now. You can’t sit on your hands and imagine it’s just going to get cheaper by magic.”

    Renewable energy prices have plunged in the last decade, putting solar and wind at lower cost than fossil fuels in many countries, spurring a global boom in clean power. The International Energy Agency said this week there had been record growth in renewable energy installation in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices.

    When the Climate Change Act was passed in the UK in 2008, the government estimated that the cost of meeting its then target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 would be about 2% of GDP over that period. Now, the costs are expected to be well below that, and likely to fall further.

  7. Unilever became the first big provider of everyday household goods to commit to green sourcing for its cleaning and laundry products. The conglomerate, which sells a wide range of familiar brands, including Persil (in Britain), Surf and Domestos, said that it would shift to renewable or recycled sources of carbon, and by 2030 no longer use chemicals derived from fossil-fuel feedstocks, such as petroleum and natural gas.

  8. “2060 sounds good, but it is just that, it sounds good,” Raj Kumar Singh, India’s minister for power, told a meeting organised by the International Energy Agency (IEA).
    “I would call it, and I’m sorry to say this, but it is just a pie in the sky.”
    To the discomfort of his fellow panellists, Mr Singh singled out developed countries where per capita emissions are much higher than in India.
    “You have countries whose per capita emissions are four or five or 12 times the world average. The question is when are they going to come down?”
    “What we hear is that by 2050 or 2060 we will become carbon neutral, 2060 is far away and if the people emit at the rate they are emitting the world won’t survive, so what are you going to do in the next five years that’s what the world wants to know.”

  9. Canada’s net-zero goals achievable, report finds

    Achieving net-zero by 2050 for Canada is a “monumental but achievable” objective that will require an all-in commitment, according to a new blueprint issued by SNC-Lavalin. Investment in engineering solutions is needed in every area of low carbon energy production, while power grid reliability, resiliency and effectiveness is key to effectively support electrification of other economic sectors, it finds.

  10. How to make long-term climate pledges add up
    A German court shines a light on the murk of emissions targets

    A near-term goal, expressed as a reduction in emissions with respect to some historical baseline, and a longer-term goal expressed as a date at which they intend to reach net-zero emissions, is increasingly the norm for countries seeking to take the climate seriously. These net-zero goals do not commit a country to a specific level of emissions, but to developing “negative emissions” on a scale that will cover whatever it does end up emitting. This makes what is actually being called for in terms of reduction between 2030 and 2050, or in some cases 2060, impossible to assess. It thus makes the fairness of requiring that effort from future generations impossible to judge.

  11. Alongside excluding high-carbon meats such as beef from its menu and using more sustainable energy sources, the company pledged to neutralise emissions by purchasing carbon credits from three rainforest conservation and tree-planting schemes.

    But scientists and carbon market specialists have raised concerns about Leon’s claim and some of the credits they have used to substantiate their advertising.

    One rainforest conservation project, the Peruvian Amazon, run by a partnership between two logging companies and a conservation NGO, was featured in a joint Guardian and Unearthed investigation that uncovered serious concerns about the project’s credibility.

    The investigation found that the Redd+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) carbon credits, which are generated by preventing hypothetical deforestation, were unlikely to represent real emission reductions and threats to the forest had been overstated.

  12. A near-term goal, expressed as a reduction in emissions with respect to some historical baseline, and a longer-term goal expressed as a date at which they intend to reach net-zero emissions, is increasingly the norm for countries seeking to take the climate seriously. These net-zero goals do not commit a country to a specific level of emissions, but to developing “negative emissions” on a scale that will cover whatever it does end up emitting. This makes what is actually being called for in terms of reduction between 2030 and 2050, or in some cases 2060, impossible to assess. It thus makes the fairness of requiring that effort from future generations impossible to judge.

    But net-zero thinking is troublesome, even so. It allows the ultimate scope of emission cuts to remain undefined and sweeps all the uncertainties under a carpet of techno-optimism. To keep governments honest, voters and activists around the world need to echo the German court’s order.

  13. Climate policy is, after all, meant to hurt. Some behaviour is supposed to become more awkward and expensive. This rubs against the eu’s previous interactions with most citizens, which were to make things easier and cheaper: as in cut-price flights or the abolition of mobile-phone roaming fees. When it comes to environmental policy, European institutions will find themselves in the role they reluctantly played a decade ago during bail-out programmes in southern Europe: the face of unpopular reforms. Rather than representing the ability to fly from Amsterdam to Athens for the price of a round of drinks, the eu will come to be associated with the steep tab for going green.

    Slashing emissions is a rotten problem for the officials, politicians and diplomats who must solve it. The costs come now and the benefits are reaped only in a generation, points out Elisabetta Cornago of the Centre for European Reform, a think-tank. Industry lobbyists are happy to accept targets for climate neutrality by 2050, when they will have retired but—funnily enough—not by 2030 when they will mostly still be in their jobs. Voters, too, are keen on going green, yet do not expect any aspect of their lives to change significantly. National politicians have a choice: share the political burden with Brussels, or shift the blame. Brussels provides a convenient scapegoat. For the eu, the process of going green will be painful, whatever silly name Eurocrats give it.

  14. At the launch of a climate conference in Riyadh, Prince Mohammed – Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler – said it would reach the target without affecting the “stability of global energy markets”.
    He said the country also would cut its emissions of methane by 30% by 2030.
    The plans would rely on “the availability of the required technologies to manage and reduce emissions”, the prince said.
    Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman said the country would use carbon capture – technology that extracts CO2 from the air – to help it meet the goal.
    Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia said it would reduce carbon emissions by shifting to renewable energy and planting billions of trees.

  15. What is ExxonMobil’s new climate strategy worth?

    Big oil’s most reluctant decarboniser lays out its green plan

    The first, long-term target is for the company to achieve carbon neutrality in its operations by 2050. It has been quite fashionable of late for big energy firms to claim that they will achieve “net zero” emissions by some distant date. Not all of them lay out specific plans for how they will actually do this. Often, they plan to rely heavily on carbon offsets, which could let them buy emissions credits of dubious quality cheaply rather than making painful emissions cuts and costly changes to their business. Mr Woods has previously dismissed such proclamations as nothing more than a “beauty competition”.

    In contrast to such pageants, Exxon Mobil’s new long-term goal is accompanied by concrete plans for this decade. In a big U-turn, the firm will commit to absolute cuts in its carbon emissions—a step it has long resisted in favour of squishier reductions in “emissions intensity”. It pledged to emit about 20% less greenhouse gases by 2030 relative to 2016, with emissions from exploration and production set to decline by approximately 30% over that period. Thirty-plus operating divisions will each get a binding target, which will add up to the company-wide total. Managers at each division will then be held accountable for achieving those cuts, with no wriggle room or trading among divisions permitted.

    Unlike many rivals, ExxonMobil does not count emissions from fields operated by joint-venture partners, which gives a fuller picture. Most important, its road map covers only emissions emanating from the company’s own operations and energy use (scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, respectively, in the jargon). European rivals such as bp, Shell and TotalEnergies have additional targets to reduce the emissions intensity of their products by 2050. That is why they have piled into renewables.


    Thanks to decades of inaction, climate change is now an inevitable reality. However, there is still time to mitigate the brunt of the damage, and in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, we must be bold. That’s why, as mayor, I’ve set an ambitious (but achievable!) goal for our city to be carbon-neutral by the time it’s already too late.

    The time for action is now, and by now, I mean twenty to thirty-five years from now. The window to push this back is rapidly closing. I fear that history will look back and ask us why we didn’t delay acting any sooner. That’s why my administration is committed to doing everything we can to kick the can down the road and tackle this looming existential threat at some vague point in the future.

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