Climate Action

What makes a good net zero target?


The new way of looking at net zero targets came amid strong warnings on climate change. Image: Unsplash/ Anders M Jacobsen

Emma Charlton
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  • Measuring and evaluating government net zero targets is essential to achieving real impact.
  • 131 countries have now adopted, announced or are considering net zero targets.
  • This covers about 73% of global emissions, but some are more robust than others.
  • From August, the CAT began evaluating net zero targets for 40 countries.
  • Assessments intended to be completed by November, when COP26 takes place.
  • Analysis is based on three areas: scope, architecture and transparency.

More than a hundred countries have set or are considering net zero targets, but who really means business?

Scientists from the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) have developed a ten step analysis that addresses the need for transparent assessments of national net zero targets.

In short, they want to “sort the green from the greenwash,” where greenwashing means presenting an environmentally responsible public image while effecting little change.

Such assessments are needed because, as of May 2021, 131 countries had adopted or announced net zero targets, and most people have little way to differentiate between those that are serious about making positive changes and those that aren’t working toward their targets as stringently as they might be.


“At their worst, net zero targets are unclear or not backed up by real-world action,” the authors of the methodology, Frederic Hans, Silke Mooldijk and Claire Fyson, wrote in a blogpost. “Net zero targets can distract from the urgent need for deep emissions reductions if 2030 targets and short-term action are inconsistent with their achievement, allowing governments to “hide” behind aspirational net zero targets. Unless governments start acting now, their chances of achieving net zero will be slim.”

A framework for measuring net zero targets Image: Climate Action Tracker

What the CAT says about the net zero targets?

CAT -- an independent scientific analysis -- says that global warming by 2100 could be as low as 2°C if all the net zero targets announced or under consideration are achieved, which it says is “substantial progress.” While that’s above the 1.5°C target set out in the Paris Agreement, it is well below the expected global warming levels of 2.4°C and the 2.9°C implied by current implemented policies.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Those differences underscore why tracking in this way is so important: it could make almost a full degree of temperature difference.

“There is a clear need for a nuanced assessment of incoming national net zero targets to understand their scope, architecture, and transparency,” say CAT scientists. “Without such scrutiny, there is a risk that poorly backed up net zero claims could render these targets meaningless.”

Measuring net zero targets Image: Climate Action Tracker

The 10-step analysis focuses firstly on scope -- which means having a clearly communicated “target year,” covering all greenhouse gases, all sources, and all economic sectors, covering emissions from international aviation and international shipping and reductions or removals outside of own borders.

The architecture part of the analysis looks at whether the net zero targets are enshrined in national law and whether they have separate sub-targets for emission reductions and removals. It also assesses whether there is a legally binding review that regularly tracks the achieved progress against the target.

On transparency, the scientists want to see transparent assumptions on the role of land use.

“Removals cannot replace deep emission reductions, and should rather be used to balance emissions that cannot be rapidly abated and to realise net negative emissions after achieving net zero,” they said. “Particular caution should be taken over the use of forest and other ecosystem-based removals because of their high uncertainties and risk of carbon re-release as a result of increasingly adverse climatic conditions in many regions, such as drought, more frequent wildfires, high temperatures and other extreme events.”


Finally, the framework looks at how comprehensive the planning process is and whether there is an explanation around the relative “fairness” of the net zero target.

“Developed countries in particular should explain how they will make up for any difference between what would be a fair contribution and what would be a realistic contribution, for example by supporting other countries in decarbonising their economies without claiming credits for use towards their own targets,” they wrote.

Once completed, the analysis will cover countries amounting to around 73% of global emissions and including key emitters like the United States of America, China, and the European Union.

Reaching net zero.
Reaching net zero. Image: Climate Action Tracker
Have you read?

The new way of looking at targets came amid strong warnings on climate change

Limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach in the next decades unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the IPCC said in a recently published report, underscoring the severity of the situation.

A major climate summit, COP26, is due to take place on 1-12 November at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow. The UK and Italian governments, as co-hosts, have set four goals: agreeing to a step change in commitments to emissions reduction, strengthening adaptation to climate change impacts, getting finance flowing for climate action, and enhancing international collaboration on energy transition, clean road transport and nature.

The World Economic Forum’s initiative for Net Zero Carbon Cities aims to bring together policy makers, businesses, infrastructure and real estate developers, city administrators, civil society and the financial sector to help cities lower their emissions. Globally, cities account for nearly two-thirds of the CO2 emissions, generated by skyscrapers, shopping malls, SUVs and air conditioners.

One of the World Economic Forum’s Uplink challenges focuses on mobilizing action on climate change, asking how entrepreneurs and innovation can spur-on efforts to meet or exceed the Paris Climate Agreement goals.

What’s clear is that everyone needs to pull together to effect change and drive carbon emissions down. Transparent targets are a key part of that.

“At their best, well-designed and ambitious net zero targets are key for reducing global carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to net zero around 2050 and 2070, respectively,” the scientists wrote. “Ambitious net zero targets can also guide the implementation of Paris-aligned actions in the short and medium term, in particular 2030 emission reduction goals.

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