Earlier this year, the UN Secretary-General set clear expectations for November’s two week UN Climate Summit, or COP26, urging all countries to set “clear and credible” net-zero targets.
Countries answered the call in Glasgow: Building on existing momentum, the Summit saw a steady stream of net-zero targets from countries promising to balance emissions and removals by midcentury, bringing the total count to 74 targetsi communicated by the close of COP26.
However, this momentum for national net-zero target-setting has recently been matched in strength with criticisms that net-zero targets are too little, and too late. A group of scientists have warned that net-zero target setting “perpetuates a [destructive] belief in technological salvation,” while activists argue that the midcentury net-zero framework diminishes the urgency of acting today.
These voices of concern are critically important in conveying that net-zero targets have the potential to distract from real and meaningful climate action when not designed and implemented robustly. But they are not justification for throwing away the net-zero target framework all together. Rather, they underscore just how important it is to get it right.
How to Ensure Robust Net-Zero Targets
Net-zero targets help chart a long-term path for countries to plan for and act on what the science says is urgently needed on climate. When setting such a target, countries commit to reaching a balance between residual emissions deemed too difficult to abate and emissions removals through natural or technological solutions, such that the net balance of additions and subtractions reaches zero.
WRI has published extensive guidance for countries seeking to design and communicate robust national net-zero targets. This research emphasizes that in order to drive the credible and urgent change required to meet the moment, net-zero targets must be both ambitious and transparent. To this end, they should:
- Aim for midcentury or earlier.
- Cover all sectors across the economy, all greenhouse gases (GHGs) recognized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and include emissions from international shipping and aviation.
- Include a gross emissions-reduction target — a set amount of gross GHG emissions-reductions — for the same year as the net-zero target.
- Include a commitment to avoid or limit reliance on international offsets.
- Inform near- and medium-term action, including 2030 targets.
So, how do the 74 national net-zero targets that have been communicated over the last few years — including those that were announced during COP26 — actually stack up?
1. Most countries aim to achieve net-zero emissions by midcentury.
The real impetus for setting net-zero targets came in 2018, with the IPCC finding that the world must reach net-zero emissions globally by midcentury in order to keep 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) — the Paris Agreement’s highest ambition temperature goal — within reach. To contribute to this global effort, countries should set net-zero targets by midcentury or earlier, with historical emitters and countries with the greatest capacity leading the way in ambition.
After the recent 26th UN Climate Summit, where the Glasgow Climate Pact recognized the importance of reaching net-zero emissions by around midcentury, it is promising to see that most of the 74 national net-zero targets today aim for 2050 or earlier.
Moving forward, countries with net-zero ambitions for after midcentury — especially countries with greater capacity and resources (i.e., Russia) — should strongly consider earlier targets to exhibit greater ambition and keep the world on track for limiting climate change. And countries that have yet to come forward with a net-zero target, including key emitters like Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa,ii should do so while keeping the necessary timeline top of mind.
2. Most net-zero targets cover all sectors, but communication around coverage of GHGs and emissions from international shipping and aviation is lacking.
To maximize ambition, there is wide consensus that net-zero targets should be designed to cover all domestic sectors and all UNFCCC-recognized GHGs. They should also cover emissions from international shipping and international aviation, which often comprise significant portions of countries’ emissions profiles.
The majority of the 74 net-zero targets communicated clearly state they intend to cover all domestic sectors — including energy, industrial processes, agriculture, waste and land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) — within their purview. This is a strong signal that countries understand the importance of decarbonizing and transforming their entire economies.
Additionally, 31 countries, about 43% of current target holders, explicitly commit to reach net-zero emissions from all UNFCCC gases. Although several countries, such as New Zealand and Ukraine, do overtly exclude certain GHGs (such as biogenic methane) from their net-zero targets — a trend which should be discouraged — the rest have just failed to communicate their intentions transparently.
A lack of clear and transparent communication also makes it difficult to assess which net-zero targets include commitments to cover emissions from international shipping and aviation. Such emissions fall outside of national boundaries and thus may not be counted by a country in its emissions inventory.
Two countries — Austria and the United Kingdom — lead the way in confirming that their net-zero targets do cover these shipping and aviation emissions from outside their borders, but most have not clarified one way or the other. And although shipping and aviation have long been viewed as particularly difficult to decarbonize, new technological innovations like low-emissions fuel demonstrate the exciting potential to drastically reduce emissions from both. More countries should commit — and state their commitment clearly — to decarbonizing both sectors within their net-zero plans.
3. Only 5 countries communicate separate gross emissions-reduction targets to achieve the same year as their net-zero target.
Net-zero targets implicitly consider emissions-removal techniques, such as promoting land-based carbon sinks and direct air capture, to offset the final residual emissions they are not able to reduce. However, countries should prioritize emissions reductions, rather than rely too heavily on emissions removals, since there is considerable uncertainty on the scale and availability of both natural and technological solutions. There are also ongoing risks of reversals and losses from carbon stored in land-based and geologic pools, meaning that the climate benefits of carbon removals could be negated later down the road. It is thus imperative that countries have systems in place to manage reversal risks — including those from anticipated climate impacts.
When setting a net-zero target for midcentury, countries should delineate between the emissions they intend to reduce and the emissions they plan to remove through natural or technological removal strategies. An ambitious gross emissions-reduction target — a target aimed at reducing GHG emissions by a specified amount — for the same year can help outline and differentiate these plans. Simultaneously, it can help to ensure that countries will not rely on overly high rates of GHG removals to balance high rates of emissions.
So far, only five countries communicate separate targets for gross emissions-reductions for the same year as their net-zero target. Sweden is one example, committing to reduce emissions by at least 85% of 1990 levels by 2045 and then remove what’s left to reach net-zero by the same year. More countries should follow suit and aim to achieve significant and deep emissions cuts by the year they plan to reach net-zero.
4. 10 countries commit to meeting net-zero targets without purchasing international offsets.
Countries should also commit to meeting their net-zero targets through primarily domestic emissions-reductions and removals, rather than relying too heavily on international offsets purchases (when a country pays for emissions-reductions in other countries to then use towards its own target).
As is clear from the IPCC reports, there is no longer any carbon or land space for traditional “offsets,” whereby a country or company reduces their emissions more slowly than what is required by the science, and “offsets” the additional emissions through investments in emissions reductions or removals elsewhere. All sectors and countries must reduce their emissions as rapidly as possible. This does not, however, preclude investing in nature-based climate solutions — at home and abroad — in addition to driving steep, domestic reductions in gross emissions. Prioritizing reductions and removals nationally also sends clear signals supporting domestic mitigation and investment and helps avoid locking in carbon-intensive infrastructure meant to last for a long time.
Across the 74 net-zero targets that have been communicated, just 10 countries — or 14% — definitively commit to meet net-zero without purchasing international offsets. Others note that they will rely at least in part on offset purchases, missing out on a strong opportunity to double down on domestic mitigation efforts.
It is important to note that not all countries — particularly developing countries and those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change — will have the resources and capacity to rely on domestic mitigation measures without international support. This highlights the urgent importance for developed countries to deliver on their COP26 commitments to increase financing for developing countries.
5. Numerous countries use net-zero targets to guide near-term action, providing examples from which others can learn.
Once a country designs and announces its net-zero target, it must ensure that the net-zero target guides and informs decision-making and action today. Indeed, a net-zero target for thirty or more years from now is only as strong as the near-term action it drives in the present.
There are many ways countries can incorporate their long-term visions to reach net-zero emissions into near-term domestic climate planning. For example, some countries like the United Kingdom, France, and New Zealand have legislated “carbon budgets,” which chart out interim economy-wide emissions reduction targets that the country must meet on the path to net-zero. In the UK’s case, the Climate Change Act legally binds the country to five-year caps on total allowable GHG emissions which are set in advance by the Parliament.
Separate from economy-wide targets, interim sectoral targets are also a useful way to ensure that countries are on the right track for achieving their midcentury ambition. For instance, within Fiji’s midcentury long-term low emission development strategy, the country commits to achieving 100% renewable energy-based electricity within its power sector by 2030. Similarly, Denmark commits to restoring 15,000 hectares of carbon-rich farmland by 2030 within its strategy. Though these commitments are neither legally binding nor economy-wide, they represent tangible actions within high-emitting sectors that these countries are progressing on in order to put their net-zero targets in good stead.
Another way countries can ensure their long-term net-zero target informs present-day action is to incorporate their target directly into their five-year plans under the Paris Agreement, known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs. To date, more than 25 countries — including Canada, Japan, and the United States — have communicated their net-zero target within a formally-submitted NDC. In so doing, these countries help ensure their NDCs contain the types of near-term policies, signals, targets and other enhancement strategies necessary in the nearer term to achieve ambitious midcentury objectives.
Finally, it’s crucial that countries stop investments and behaviors that are antithetical to climate progress and incompatible with their net-zero targets. For instance, in 2020, countries around the globe spent $345 billion on subsidizing fossil fuel use and production. Efforts like the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) launched at COP26 — which sets an end date for national oil and gas exploration and extraction for alliance members — are critical steps forward.
How Can We Further Net-Zero Progress?
It is promising to see numerous countries communicate their intention to reach net-zero emissions by midcentury, and it is promising to see that many have begun to incorporate the aforementioned principles for robustness into their targets.
However, there is still much more work to be done to ensure both increased ambition and transparency of net-zero targets. WRI’s guidance can inform countries’ net-zero target development and help ensure their goals amount to robust and meaningful progress.
Establishing strong national ambition is the first step, but it is also critically important that this ambition is communicated clearly and transparently. For countries that have only expressed a net-zero target through political pledge or government announcement, the next step may be to communicate their intentions within an in-depth and public policy document or plan, such as a long-term climate strategy. These plans — whether being updated or published for the first time — should leave no room for ambiguity on the scope of the target.
Seventy-four countries have already stepped up to announce their midcentury net-zero intentions — the international community now deserves to know if they’re serious about getting it right.