Are net zero pledges increasing too fast?

The number of net-zero pledges from cities, regions and companies has roughly doubled in less than a year since late 2019. This is great news. Kind of.

The study by Data-Driven EnviroLab and the NewClimate Institute showed the number of businesses that have set net-zero goals shot up from 500 at the end of 2019 to 1,541 in September 2020. These firms represent $11.4 trillion (£8.35 trillion), 19.3 million employees and 3,5 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases (more than India’s annual emissions).

Participation is greatest among companies in the ‘consumer discretionary sector’ – which ranges from hotels and food companies to apparel brands – with over $2 trillion (£1.5 trillion) in total revenue from 195 companies.

More than 800 cities and 100 regions have also set net-zero targets. The experts said the momentum to set and communicate net-zero targets is “strong and accelerating”.

However, they also discovered the targets are “multifaceted and highly nuanced”. There is a broad range of definitions, scopes and implementation approaches, for example.

“As with any climate action commitment, understanding exactly what’s being pledged — and how it will be achieved — is crucial to determining its effect on national and global greenhouse gas emissions,” said Thomas Day of NewClimate Institute.

The pledges range from plans that encompass the majority of a company’s scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions, to goals that are “very narrowly targeted, sometimes to specific facilities or products”. Some companies outline specific targets, backed up by pledges to track and report their progress, while others make more general targets, or sign onto initiatives in which they pledge to further develop their targets and action plans, the authors noted.

In a follow up report they looked at the nuances in some of the targets. They found that the “innate ambiguity of the term ‘net-zero’ can make targets incomparable […] and even enable greenwashing”. A lack of transparency could also “mislead citizens, consumers and investors about the environmental impact associated with a product or service, leading to decisions and behaviour that cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions”.

They identified carbon offsets as a particular problem. Approximately half the companies assessed are transparent about their intention to use offsets for their net-zero targets. Very few explicitly ruled out their use. However, “without a radical transformation of the offsetting market and the types of activities it supports, offsetting cannot be considered an equivalent alternative to an actor’s own emission reductions in 2020”, they wrote.

In a blog for The Conversation recently, academics from the University of Oxford warned that “the profusion of net zero targets from countries, cities and businesses is outpacing guidance on best practice. Put plainly, we should be sorting the genuine from the greenwash.”

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