When it comes to tackling climate change, achieving “net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050” has become a ubiquitous rallying cry. It’s in goals set by cities, states, and the Biden administration. It’s a hallmark of companies’ sustainability pledges, from Big Tech to Big Oil. It’s not enough.
The world’s leading climate experts called for more swift action on climate change in a major report released today by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Near-term goals to slash greenhouse gas pollution need to be a much higher priority, advocates say, and there’s precious little time to reach them.
“The climate time-bomb is ticking. But today’s IPCC report is a how-to guide to defuse the climate time-bomb. It is a survival guide for humanity,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement today.
“The climate time-bomb is ticking.”
Greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change need to peak by 2025 to keep global warming from surpassing a critical threshold, the report says. And more affluent nations, responsible for a larger share of pollution, need to be on a faster timeline than emerging economies, Guterres said. He proposed an “Acceleration Agenda” to the G20 today that asks economically developed countries to move their net-zero goals up “as close as possible to 2040.”
Still, some advocates are wary of fuzzy, far-off targets that set goalposts decades into the future. “What makes me anxious is the pace at which we are doing things when we need to be achieving a lot more in the near term,” says Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International. “Of course, we needed a long term horizon … but the whole terminology of ‘net-zero’ has been extremely problematic.”
Getting to net-zero emissions worldwide by the middle of the century became a mainstream target thanks to another climate report from the United Nations in 2018. That research is included in the IPCC’s report today, which is a synthesis of all the IPCC’s recent work since the 2018 publication.
The world is already losing ground to sea level rise and suffering more extreme weather disasters because of climate change. The IPCC’s 2018 report found that those effects grow significantly worse if warming surpasses that 1.5-degree mark. Yet, five years later, greenhouse gas emissions continue to skyrocket.
“What’s different now is that we know the climate crisis is accelerating, is more widespread and extreme than originally predicted, and the window for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is pretty much closing,” says Adrien Salazar, policy director for the nonprofit Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, in an email to The Verge.
With today’s report, there’s more emphasis on the incremental steps the world needs to take right away. One crucial detail that got buried in the 2018 publication was a deadline to slash emissions roughly in half by 2030. Today’s update also says that greenhouse gas pollution needs to peak by 2025 and decline by 60 percent by 2035.
“The science is very clear, but it was convenient for political leaders and even corporations to only talk about 2050.”
“Deeper cuts front-loaded now — that point got lost in the whole slogan of, you know, ‘net-zero by 2050,’” says Basav Sen, director of the climate policy project at the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies.
“The science is very clear, but it was convenient for political leaders and even corporations to only talk about 2050,” Singh says. “You know, most of them may not be around when we reach [that date] so it was easy for them to talk about 2050 without really providing necessary details and near-term targets.”
There’s been another glaring oversight, Singh points out. You can’t slash greenhouse gas emissions without weaning the world off its dependence on fossil fuels. That gets ignored because of the IPCC’s emphasis on reaching net-zero emissions. The term implies a balancing act: people can still produce some fossil fuel pollution as long as they balance that with ways to remove it from the atmosphere. Polluters might pay to offset some of their emissions using forestry projects or emerging technologies that filter CO2 from the air. But neither tactic is reliable at scale and is really only supposed to be ancillary to a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.
The net-zero strategy is supposed to help out the hardest sectors to clean up, like shipping and aviation, which are still searching for alternative fuels. But even brands that can more easily turn to renewable energy have “net-zero” goals that let them get away with tricky carbon accounting. A company might aim to slash its emissions by 99 percent or 19 percent — but either way, it can claim to reach net-zero emissions. That flexibility makes net-zero goals so rife with greenwashing that the United Nations released a report in November slamming corporate climate commitments. The criteria many use have loopholes wide enough to “drive a diesel truck through,” Guterres said at the time.
There’s been similar murkiness in countries’ climate pledges. Earlier this month, the Biden administration approved the Willow project in Alaska, the US’s largest proposed oil project on public land yet. The US is also investing billions in capturing and storing CO2 as part of its strategy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
It’s high past time to set clearer goals, advocates tell The Verge. “You either have zero emissions or you don’t,” the Institute for Policy Studies’ Sen says.