Net-zero pledges are growing — how serious are they?

Net-zero pledges are growing — how serious are they?

Fossil-fuel production and consumption must be cut drastically to achieve net zero.Credit: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty

The number of countries, regions, cities and companies worldwide that have set targets to reach net-zero emissions has increased significantly over the past two years, but the strategies needed to meet those pledges are lacking.

This is the conclusion of Net Zero Stocktake 2023, a report compiled by the climate researchers who run the Net Zero Tracker, a collaboration that aims to increase accountability of net-zero pledges. The tracker keeps count of entities of different sizes — including nations, regions and companies — that have pledged to ensure that by 2050, any greenhouse-gas emissions they make are zero or completely balanced by removal mechanisms. The tracker also assesses whether the commitments have legal heft. The stocktake is the third such exercise conducted by the group in the past three years.

Legally weak: Of the 149 nations that have net-zero targets, 75% have enshrined them in law or policy documents.

Source: Net Zero Stocktake 2023

The latest analysis shows that the proportion of countries with net-zero pledges that are either enshrined in law or in a weighty policy document has leapt from 7% in December 2020 to 75% (see ‘Legally weak’). “This shows that governments see actions towards net-zero as critical for the long term,” says Malango Mughogho, managing director of sustainable-finance firm ZeniZeni in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former member of a United Nations net-zero group.

Lacking plans

The stocktake focuses on the quality, or integrity, of the measures put in place to achieve the pledges. “We looked at the data and we saw such little movement on integrity,” says John Lang, who leads the Net Zero Tracker and who works at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, an advisory firm in London. They compared pledges and progress with the requirements laid out in the UN’s Race to Zero campaign.

The Race to Zero scheme outlines a set of criteria called the ‘starting line’, which is the “the very minimum procedural requirements for a decent pledge”, says Lang. The criteria include having a pledge, plan and published evidence of action taken towards reaching the target.

Most states, regions or cities that have made pledges have not met the starting line criteria. “We saw no movement whatsoever” in almost every case, says Lang.

“Delivery is at the heart of net zero,” says Mughogho. She adds that creating fair regulations on net-zero targets across the globe at the levels of cities, regions, businesses and financial institutions could be one of the easiest measures to implement. “It’s a no-brainer,” she says. The UN panel on climate change will undertake its first global stocktake of progress towards the Paris Agreement goals ahead of the COP28 climate meeting in November. Mughogho says that this will help to refine understanding of the actions that governments and companies are taking (see ‘Growing goals’).

Growing goals: Bar chart showing number of net-zero targets set by firms, cities, regions and countries in 2020 and 2023.

Source: Net Zero Stocktake 2023

The net-zero stocktake for the first time looks at entities’ plans to phase out fossil fuels. Of the 114 fossil-fuel firms assessed, 67% have net-zero pledges. But none has a plan to phase out oil and gas completely. This doesn’t align with scientific or policy consensus, the authors say.

“We’re not asking for them to turn the tap off overnight,” says Lang, adding that all entities — not just the companies they analysed — need to have a plan for a managed decline in fossil-fuel usage over the next 30 or 40 years. These plans are not yet in place. The group hopes to collect more comprehensive data on the phasing out of fossil fuels across all the entities they track in the coming months.

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