Climate change pledges are everywhere lately. Companies, countries, international organizations, cities, universities, and even individual buildings are going “carbon neutral” or “net zero emission” or “carbon negative” by some future date – usually 2050, but some as early as 2030 or as late as 2060.
Some of this activity is spurred by the Race to Zero campaign of the UN Framework Convention for Climate change (UNFCCC). The initiative lists “733 cities, 31 regions, 3,067 businesses, 173 of the biggest investors, and 622 Higher Education Institutions” as net zero pledgers. Another organization zerotracker.net reports 137 countries with net zero pledges.
The pledge terminology is far from clear. The terminology-soup includes Net Zero Carbon, Carbon Neutral, Net Zero Emissions, Carbon Negative, and Climate Positive occupying different places on the ambition continuum. Some of these terms, especially the first two in the list, are used inter-changeably.
The world’s foremost scientific authority on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) has a glossary that provides definitions for some of these terms:
Net zero Carbon is “achieved when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period. Net zero CO2 emissions are also referred to as carbon neutrality.”
Net Zero Emissions is the more ambitious version of Net Zero Carbon and it is “achieved when anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period.” This is Net Zero Carbon applied to all greenhouse gases (GHGs) not just CO2.
Also in the “zero” group is that ideal of “zero emissions,” but this will likely remain an ideal given absolute decarbonization is difficult within our economic and social patterns.
Important to note that the net-zero idea is meant for the planet as a whole given the word “globally” used in the IPCC definition. Technically it is not for individual entities such as a company or a city to pursue. But application of the idea by individual entities gives them a tangible action element which is also important.
Carbon Neutral, by IPCC definition, is the same as Net Zero Carbon.
Also in the “neutral” group is Climate Neutral which IPCC defines as the “state in which human activities result in no net effect on the climate system”. Because this idea covers all GHGs it is higher on the ambition ladder
Negative Emissions is the term IPCC uses for carbon/GHG negative defined as “removal of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the atmosphere by deliberate human activities, i.e., in addition to the removal that would occur via natural carbon cycle processes.”
Climate positive is not in the IPCC glossary. It means you have found ways to reduce more GHGs than just your emissions . That is, your overall effect on the climate is positive, that your actions made the atmosphere better than you found it.
Although IPCC considers Net Zero Carbon and Carbon Neutral as inter-changeable, there are those who use these terms with a more nuanced understanding. For example, an article at this engineering web site considers Net Zero Carbon to be “making changes to reduce carbon emissions to the lowest amount – and offsetting as a last resort.” The same source considers Carbon Neutral as “policy of not increasing carbon emissions and of achieving carbon reduction through offsets.” So this perspective applies “neutral” to both the overall net result of human activity and to keeping emission levels neutral, which adds a useful layer of ambition to the concept. In fact from the engineer’s perspective, both terms involve a change in emission by not increasing emission and by actually reducing it. Kudos to the engineers!
The question is whether these pledges are real or just greenwashing. The following four questions can help sift through the thousands of pledges:
1. What is the baseline year of the pledge?
Different pledges pick different years as their base when calculating the promised emission reductions. The year 1990 is frequently used and indicative of a more serious pledge because that is the base year of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (adopted in 1992). The pledges of the European Union and most of its member countries use this base year.
The US uses 2005 (the year when the Kyoto Protocol, addition to UNFCCC, entered into force setting binding emission reduction targets for industrialized countries. But the Protocol’s base year is still 1990 which the US seems to have put aside).
Other baseline year examples include Japan with 2013, and the recent announcement by Russia using 2019 as the base year (although this country’s previous climate target was using 1990 as the base year). Then there is the case of Saudi Arabia which has a pledge but no base year.
The more distant the base year is from the UNFCCC’s 1990 baseline, the less seriously I would take the pledge. Reducing your emissions 50% from 1990 levels is a greater commitment than reducing it 50% from last year as the base year.
2. What is the deadline?
Different pledges pick different deadlines as well. The mot frequently used deadline is 2050 because it is a key year in the IPCC’s scenarios and also its special 1.5°C report (2018) for limiting global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. Another year used in pledges is 2030 which is an interim target in the IPCC scenarios and reports: year for a 50% reduction in emissions on the way to becoming net zero by 2050.
Most countries that have made a net zero pledge use 2050 as their deadline. Here is a helpful visual showing countries with a net zero pledge and their deadlines. Then there are those who selected 2060 (Australia, China, India, Russia, Singapore, and S. Arabia) or 2053 (Turkey) and those who have no-pledge-no-deadline (Poland, the only EU country remaining outside the block’s net zero commitment). The countries with a later deadline or no deadline are either sitting on major fossil fuel reserves (coal in Australia, India and Poland; oil in S. Arabia) or significantly dependent on fossil fuels with little or no leeway for alternatives (for example Singapore says it lacks land for solar energy).On the other hand some countries are more ambitious. Germany’s national deadline is 2045, five years earlier than that of the European Union.
Companies also have various deadlines for going net zero carbon, net zero emissions or carbon neutral. Many have picked 2050. A group of companies under the organization The Climate Pledge has selected 2040, which sounds more ambitious but it is important to look under the hood. So far I found only progress reports on the number of companies that joined the initiative rather than reports by each on the progress in reducing their emissions. (This organization is co-founded by Amazon and currently boasts over 200 member companies. Lack of progress reports by the individual members is strange considering regular reporting is a requirement for becoming a member).
The company climate pledges may have different deadlines if they are responding to the three emission reduction scopes established by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. This is a joint initiative of World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The initiative provides “standards, guidance, tools and training for business and government to measure and manage climate-warming emission”.
The three scopes are as follows. Scope 1 is the direct emissions stemming from company’s own activities such as its production process, or the vehicles it uses. Scope 2 are indirect emissions such as the electricity it buys for its operations. Scope 3 is emissions that the company does not control such as how sold goods are used, the leased buildings, and value chain emissions. A company may indicate different deadlines for each scope. Usually Scope 1 and 2 may have more ambitious deadlines than Scope 3 emissions. If a company pledge provides details such as the emissions scopes it is a sign that the pledge is more than a PR exercise, that the company is making a serious effort to reduce its emissions.
Is there an implementation plan?
If the pledge maker does not have a publicly available action plan for its pledge, then it is safe to assume that the pledge is mostly a PR exercise. A serious net zero pledge must have an action plan that spells out specific targets for specific actions with specific deadlines. In the case of companies, the details we want to see include the scope 1, 2, and 3 emission reduction targets. Here is an example of an action plan by Unilever. (This company, especially its former CEO Paul Polman, was actively involved and supported the development of the Sustainable Development Goals process. Mr. Polman was accused by Forbes of attending to his company’s global responsibility more than its sales and profits. The company has had its share of controversies but also has been serious about its sustainability and social responsibility goals.)
Are the results measured and transparently reported?
Pledging without a clear plan for measuring progress and a transparent way to report these results is also just a PR exercise. Without reliable measurements and transparent reporting the pledge maker is merely making promises. The pledge action plan must describe how results will be monitored, measured, and periodically reported and ensure that the general public can access this information. Better yet, if the pledge maker uses a third party to verify the action results so we know that they have taken real action beyond just empty words.
For countries, companies and others who want to or have decided to announce a net zero emissions initiative, the organization Climate Action Tracker has developed this10-step initiative evaluation method:
We have arrived that moment when there is no more space or time left for postponing action. I remember reading climate change reports as a new UN staffer feeling the responsibility but not feeling the urgency because the reports were projecting a situation to happen in the next century. 2050 or even 2030 seemed so so far away.
Now we are only a few years before that mid-term year of 2030! And the atmospheric carbon level is at 413 ppm today and actually reached 419 ppm last summer. Last time the planet had more than 400 ppm of atmospheric carbon the sea level was 78 feet higher and temperature was 7°F higher than preindustrial times (when atmospheric carbon was 280 ppm). There is no more time to wait, to ignore the truth, or postpone action for some future date. It is time to act now and act with the utmost seriousness.
We are long past the point for false promises and public relations hoopla!
Update: In late 2022 the United Nations High Level Expert Group on net zero emissions commitments released its report Integrity Matters: Net zero commitments by businesses, financial institutions, cities and regions. This is a helpful and practical starting place, a roadmap, for a business that wants to make a meaningful net zero commitment.