The Promise and Pitfalls of Net-Zero Pledges

The ubiquitous climate target comes with big loopholes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hit it.
Google, whose Mountain Valley, California, headquarters is shown here, became carbon neutral in 2007.

Hans Blossey/Alamy

It’s the race to zero. In an effort to tackle the climate crisis, a growing number of countries, cities, corporations, and seemingly everyone in between have rolled out a net-zero emissions pledge. In fact, almost two-thirds of global emissions are now covered by this type of target.

The United States aims to hit net-zero emissions by 2050. Tech giants like Apple and IBM plan to get there in just eight years, while Facebook (now Meta) claimed it did last year.

In theory, net-zero pledges are a crucial tool for reaching our global climate goals, but in practice, they also come with some big asterisks.

The Importance of Net-Zero Emissions

Net-zero emissions simply means that we remove the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere as we have released. Think of it as a balancing out.

And its significance is rooted in science. In 2019, a landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concluded that global emissions must peak by 2030 and then fall to zero by around 2050 if we’re to keep warming within a threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid a climate catastrophe.

So net-zero pledges provide a necessary goalpost: prevent the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere from going up. And an effective pledge requires, first and foremost, getting human-caused emissions, like those produced by burning fossil fuels, as close to zero as possible. Whatever emissions can’t be reduced must then be offset through carbon removal options like, say, actively conserving forests, wetlands, and grasslands, or investing in new technologies that pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Ideally, the emissions that need to be offset would become smaller over time as we transition more completely to a clean energy economy.

It’s important to note that, because of the “offset” component, reaching net-zero emissions does not mean a country or company has stopped polluting entirely. That would represent real zero emissions. It also doesn’t mean a company or country has completely switched over to renewables, either. As with everything, the devil of net-zero is in the details.

The Problems with Net-Zero Pledges

A pledge, unfortunately, is not a plan. Many countries have set net-zero targets but have not yet made those targets legally binding or fleshed out just how they’ll get there.

There’s also no single authority dictating how to do the math, leaving what counts as a reduction in emissions up to individual discretion and leaving some net-zero targets stronger than others. For example, some countries are choosing to not count emissions from polluting sectors like aviation or shipping. Organizations like the Climate Action Tracker have graded the strength of current net-zero pledges, and by their accounting, many countries’ targets remain insufficient, including that of the United States.

An example of reforestation

iStock

The Specific Pitfalls of Offsets

Climate advocates also see pitfalls in how net-zero seekers use carbon offsets, which are supposed to be a tool in addressing climate change. But polluters can potentially delay (or entirely avoid) real emissions reductions by heavily relying on them and proceeding with business as usual.

“It can be a daunting prospect to transition your state, your home, or your business model to something that is compatible with a net-zero world, so often, people look at offsets to allow them to continue as they always have and still meet their goals,” says Amanda Levin, a clean energy policy analyst at NRDC. “But that narrative is harmful.”

For one, offsets are far from a sure thing. Most look like expanding natural carbon sinks. A country may promise to plant trees on a denuded landscape that could then soak up and store carbon in its vegetation and soil. But it can take decades, and sometimes centuries, for forests to grow big enough to be effective carbon-storers. They’re also subject to unpredictable damage, like droughts or wildfires, which then release carbon back into the atmosphere. In some cases, offsets don’t actively sequester carbon but merely avoid future pollution. (That may look like paying a landowner to keep the forested part of their property intact instead of razing it.)

We also run into a math problem: There simply isn’t enough available land for every country and corporation to reforest without displacing either residents or the farms we rely on for food. Yet, virtually all do, to varying degrees. The international nonprofit Oxfam found that relying solely on building out forests to keep warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius would require more space than what’s occupied by all of the world’s farmland.

It’s also difficult to measure and verify progress. “There’s not enough data to confirm that someone else isn’t getting credit for protecting the same stand of trees as you, and that the stand of trees really would’ve been cut down if it wasn’t for you,” Levin says. According to a recent study, there’s a 5.5-billion-ton discrepancy each year between the amount of carbon that countries say they’ve sequestered through forests and what the independent models show.

Of course, conservation isn’t the only avenue toward offsetting emissions; some net-zero plans rely on more cutting-edge approaches. One of these, direct air capture technology, is a man-made means of soaking up atmospheric carbon. While it may eventually be an important supplemental strategy for addressing the legacy of carbon pollution, it’s still largely in development. And the versions of direct air capture that are now in use come with major financial and logistical hurdles, so many advocates view them skeptically.

“Really, our only option is to ensure that we’re doing everything we can now to eliminate our pollution and our footprint and then expand the carbon sink to address what we can’t easily get rid of,” Levin says. In other words, get as close to real zero emissions as possible.

Emissions from the Valero Houston refinery, located on the Houston Ship Channel, rise over homes in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood in Houston.

Scott Dalton for NRDC

How Inequity and Greenwashing Can Come into Play

Net-zero pledges can potentially worsen climate inequities. For example, wealthy countries, which include some of the largest historical polluters, are able to fund offset projects outside their borders while continuing to pollute at home. In turn, developing nations, which are some of the most vulnerable to and least responsible for the climate crisis, are expected to take much more costly climate actions like transitioning to renewables and electrifying transit.

Offsets can also ignore the here-and-now health impacts of pollution. A coal plant’s emissions may be netted out from a climate perspective by planting a forest, but the sulfur dioxide, mercury, and other deadly air pollutants from the fossil fuel facility still harm fenceline communities, which are most often low-income communities and communities of color.

As for corporations, there’s a growing pressure to publicly commit to net-zero. But no oversight exists to make sure they stick to it, and there’s no standard for counting their emissions, leaving ample room for greenwashing.

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For example, an oil and gas company may try to reduce emissions at its facilities—such as stopping the flaring of methane at the wellhead—but do nothing to change its business model. Indeed, no major oil and gas company, many of which have rolled out shiny net-zero pledges, has agreed to halt fossil fuel production over the next decade—or to stop lobbying against pro-climate policies. “This is why the net-zero promises made by some of these corporations mean absolutely zilch,” Levin says.

Why There Is Still Room for Improvement with Net-Zero

Despite all of these potential pitfalls, net-zero remains a necessity, and pledges still represent a significant improvement from the status quo and help keep the hope of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees alive.

The key is to not use net-zero tools to punt true emissions reductions decades down the road and to set nearer-term benchmarks with transparent reporting. Countries and companies would be less able to hide behind offsets, for example, if emissions reductions and offsets were tracked and reported as separate figures. The United States has set a target of halving its climate pollution by 2030 and sourcing 100 percent of its electricity from clean energy by 2035, which may build enough momentum for the country to hit net-zero before the 2050 marker. A number of other countries pushed forward their net-zero targets or set ones for the first time at the recent COP26 climate summit.

Many cities and states are also doing their part. Climate leaders like Hawaii have set even more ambitious targets by aiming for 100 percent renewable-sourced electricity by 2045, while New York has set economy-wide mandates to get to net-zero by 2050. Changes like these should allow for the real, at-the-source emissions reductions we need.

Hitting these goals will also require a total phaseout of fossil fuels, steep increases in international climate financing, the complete electrification of our buildings and transportation systems, and overhauls to how we manage our food and land. Successful net-zero will require, in essence, a transformative commitment beyond the numbers.


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