Starting the discussion: Is net zero missing the mark?

By Anna Ploeg

Photography by Tania Malréchauffé

The urgency to tackle climate change is rising, thereby marking this years’ COP26 in Glasgow as a “make or break year”. Combined with interrelated challenges put forth by the health pandemic, accelerating biodiversity loss and unprecedented natural disasters, countries must rise to the occasion and embrace their long overdue climate action.

According to a report by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), many major CO2 emitting nations have yet to submit their plans to cut greenhouse gases[1]. Furthermore, even those who have submitted Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) continue to fall short on making a tangible effort to meet Paris Agreement targets. Such a goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, remains an ambitious benchmark to which we are fast approaching. The upcoming COP offers hope to bring about global cooperation towards tackling this shared threat and initiate more ambitious targets for climate action. The cohosts of the COP26, the UK and Italian governments, have set four goals for the event:

  1. Agreeing to scale up commitments to emissions reduction;
  2. Strengthening adaptation to climate change impacts to protect natural habitats;
  3. Creating accessible finance for vulnerable countries; and,
  4. Enhancing international collaboration[2].

These are broad, but important goals. The principle which informs these goals and discussions at these yearly COPs is the hope that while reducing our collective burning of fossil fuels, which emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, that we also deploy “carbon dioxide removal” techniques to halt global warming more rapidly. This idea is central to the world’s current plan to avoid climate catastrophe and aims to achieve net zero by mid-century. However, I wish to flag this since I feel as though reaching net-zero may be missing the mark on adequate emission reductions. As Dyke, et. al. state[3], it perpetuates a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency that is needed to curb emissions now.

Such a philosophy relies on the belief that we will have access to technologies that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through storage in vegetation, soil, and rocks. Unfortunately, these types of technologies remain unproven and displace climate action today due to the hope that in the coming future, such technologies will exist. It creates disincentives towards needed action. This “burn now, pay later” mentality that drives climate action gambles with the future of civilisation. This upcoming COP must move beyond such a goal to produce a global itinerary that does not use a deceiving band-aid solution to our unecological and selfish practices.

Moreover, in the lead up to the COP in the fall, states should recognise that labels such as “climate neutral” or “climate positive” from offsetting are misleading, because they do still in fact have a carbon footprint. Assuming rather naively that carbon sinks can properly offset burning toxic chemicals such as oil, gas and coal has become the curse of climate action. These labels portray governments, corporate entities and products as being eco-friendly, although in reality it should be seen as a form of greenwashing and therefore as unfavourable.

While working under a seemingly “free market” system, one has to wonder whether it is truly free. Governments, laws and political institutions play a large role in planning how the economy operates and who it serves and disserves. “Targets may dominate the headlines, but it is these institutions of planning that are central to the climate struggle”[4]. One of these crucial institutions are central banks, they help structure the global economy and our environmental future by investing in certain activities that could steer us towards rapid decarbonisation. Banks could introduce socially just carbon pricing to help gear private investments towards a greener future. Therefore, we must speak about targets while also rethinking our global economic system and how it is planned and organised. Instead of being driven by maximising short term gains, the economy needs to be reorganised democratically through tools and processes that focus on securing environmental wellbeing. We are disillusioned into thinking that these systems are out of our control, however governments and its institutions retain the power to reimagine a future beyond concrete numbers and statistics.

In order to achieve Paris Agreement targets, we must start implementing radical degrowth policies that foster a circular economic model. We must alter our assumption that growth implies development, because this creates incentive for countries to use unecological methods to boost their economies. “Ecological economists define degrowth as an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that will reduce societies’ throughput of energy and raw materials”[5]. We are naive to think that we can reduce the effects of climate change in any other way. Talk of net-zero is simply paradoxical. 

Therefore, we must ensure that at the upcoming COP, country representatives are not pushing for a false hope in carbon storage solutions, as the mirage of a magical solution offers false hope towards an unworkable future. Instead of promoting a fantasy of net-zero, climate efforts must be tackled with the appropriate seriousness and urgency. Participants of the COP26, must shift their focus from a mid-century net zero target to immediate, unprecedented, and sustained action to reduce emissions. Current net zero policies will not limit global warming to below the 1.5 target, but will rather maintain and protect growth as business as usual. In line with this, we must not neglect the fact that while reaching reduction targets is crucial, a lot of damage has already been done, therefore there must also be talk of climate restoration projects.

For this year’s COP to be the springboard that is needed for the next decade, the effort towards tackling climate change must also come from all sectors in society, not just from targets set forth by governments, but also from non-state actors such as the private sector, media, and civil society. As much as top-down policies are needed, society needs to listen to grassroots initiatives that are igniting change from the ground up. Plus, more developed nations need to take ownership of their historical carbon footprint and recognise that those who have contributed the least to climate change, will be suffering (and are already suffering) the consequences. These demographics as well as youth voices should be integrated into the discussion table as they are the ones who understand the urgency of climate change. Countries and MNC’s think short term and in terms of monetary gain; they often subscribe to green policies as a symbolic demonstration of their commitments to climate change on paper but fail to perform in actuality. Although currently parties to the COP tend to think individually, we must collectively realise that this is a global issue that demands a global solution. Together, the world must come together to galvanise a range of stakeholders to challenge the current global norms, force the alignment of short-term interests with long term aspirations and scale up action at a faster pace[6].


[1] Broom , D. (2021). “Climate Change: What Is COP26 and Why Does It Matter?” World Economic Forum, http://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/05/cop26-un-climate-change-summit/.

[2] https://ukcop26.org/cop26-goals/

[3] Dyke, J., et. al. (2021).  “Climate Scientists: Concept of Net Zero Is a Dangerous Trap.” The Conversation, theconversation.com/climate-scientists-concept-of-net-zero-is-a-dangerous-trap-157368.

[4] Lawrence, M. (2021). “Targets like ‘Net-Zero’ Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis on Their Own | Mathew Lawrence.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/30/net-zero-climate-crisis-decarbonise-economy.

[5] Mastini, R. (2017).  “Degrowth: the Case for a New Economic Paradigm.” OpenDemocracy, http://www.opendemocracy.net/en/degrowth-case-for-constructing-new-economic-paradigm/.

[6] Dagnet, Y, and J.M. Mendoza. (2020). “INSIDER: Making the Paris Agreement Work: Strengthening the Process Driving Ambition.” World Resources Institute, http://www.wri.org/insights/insider-making-paris-agreement-work-strengthening-process-driving-ambition.

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