ECI 25: Understanding Net Zero

Understanding net zero: Scientific fundamentals

Currently Available Approaches
How Much Can We Reduce Emissions Using Currently Available Approaches?
How Fast Can We Transform Global Energy Systems?

While conventional theory on transitions suggests these are long affairs that span decades, islands present a unique opportunity for rapid transitions. This is because the challenges that slow down transitions, such as the scalability issues and market requirements, are not as problematic on islands. Instead, islands offer a ‘niche’ that can serve as an early test bed for rapid emissions reductions. 

From potentially very fast transitions in the case of islands, to much slower transitions in terms of global-scale adoption of ecosystem restoration pathways and other CO2 utilisation solutions, it is important to note that not all solutions are equal in terms of the speed with which they can deliver emissions reductions. Ecosystem restoration pathways are a major component of the One Earth climate model and accompanying book, entitled Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement. 

The One Earth model meets the Paris Agreement’s target of 1.5°C without the use of geoengineering while protecting 50% of lands and oceans. Natural climate solutions (NCS), such as forest ecosystem restoration, sustainable use of forests and agroforestry, are shown to be imperative for keeping global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C by removing 400 GtCO2 by the end of the century.

At What Scale Are We Able to Reduce Emissions?

The scale of emissions reduction potential is highly variable and context specific. In the case of global scale CO2 utilisation, there is potential for gigaton-scale utilisation by 2050, but there are still major uncertainties in costs, technology development and scalability. 

CO2 utilisation is a process in economically valuable products are generated using CO2, whether that CO2 is supplied from flue gases, captured from the atmosphere via industrial processes or captured from the atmosphere via industrial processes such as photosynthesis or enhanced weathering.

Returning to the small-scale cases of islands such as Mauritius, Fiji, and Barbados, emissions reductions are constrained by factors such as tourism, which can account for 30 to 80% of CO2 emissions on islands. 

However, there is still scope to mitigate the impact of tourism, for example, through optimizing rural transit networks, and this is an active area of research for island transitions. But can these lessons also inform solutions at larger scales? The question of scale is centrally important in how we accelerate and govern transitions.

How Does Governance Influence Ecosystem Restoration Pathways?

In the case of ecosystem restoration pathways, especially those that rely on considerable forest conservation, governance issues are centrally important. Recent work has shown that 40% of protected lands and high-biodiversity conservation areas are managed by indigenous peoples, and if the definition is broadened to include community-held and collectively managed lands, the total is around 60% of the earth’s land surface. 

Respecting and legally recognising indigenous land title is essential. There clearly remains work to be done in quantifying indigenous land management, representing this accurately in models, and further elevating indigenous knowledge and views in the conversation on climate change and emissions reduction pathways.

Governance issues were also identified as critical for large-scale CO2 utilisation efforts. Many of the highlighted techniques show promise for delivering net zero, but this is not an inevitable outcome of their deployment.

CO2 utilisation could have unintended consequences, such as increasing CO2 emissions (e.g. enhanced oil recovery), reducing CO2 emissions without removing CO2 from the atmosphere on a net basis (e.g. synthetic fuels), or having no net impact on CO2 but increasing other greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. synthetic urea). Land governance issues are also relevant in the case of land-based CO2 utilisation pathways, especially bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and reforestation.

What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?
  • The first and most important thing to concentrate on is reducing emissions. This will always be easier than recapturing what has already been emitted

  • Natural climate solutions have a great deal to offer in terms of carbon sequestration, in addition to restoring and maintaining ecosystem health

  • The main challenge facing us now is political, not technological. We must identify the political pathways for a more rapid transition to net zero

  • Lessons can be learned from energy transition pathways at small scales, such as in island states

  • Governance issues, especially those related to indigenous land management, are vitally important for a just transition

Where We Are in Achieving Net Zero

How Can We Reduce Emissions Through Energy Efficiency?


Up to the present day, improvements in efficiency of the fossil energy production system have saved 30 times the quantity of emitted CO2 than have been saved through the production of renewable energy. In absolute terms, these efficiency improvements have saved the equivalent of 25 years of present-day CO2 emissions. However, renewables still remain considerably more visible in the mass media and scientific literature. 


Energy efficiency has far larger potential to reduce emissions than can be achieved through the use of renewables. While efficiency improvements such as commercial building retrofits incur large upfront costs, they typically pay back their costs within a few years due to large energy savings.


There are multiple examples of efficiency improvements such as the design of pipes and ducts for oil transportation, the use of carbon fibre in vehicles resulting in a decrease in weight and a corresponding increase in fuel efficiency, and improvements in logistics resulting in fewer empty truck movements. These efficiency improvements means that oil company owners are far more at risk from competition and corresponding low prices, than anything else.


A rapid transition to a low carbon energy system is well underway and emissions reductions due to efficiency savings are still accelerating. This may provide good reason for optimism over the ambitious temperature and emissions targets of the Paris Agreement. However, the current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are are likely to result in 3°C of warming by the end of the 21st century.


What Will Be Required for the UK to Achieve Net Zero Emissions by 2050?


There are two levers associated with stabilising global temperatures (whether at 1.5°C or 2°C): the date when net zero emissions of CO2 are achieved and the pathway of non- CO2 forcing.  


A key feature of the warming associated with CO2 emissions is that peak induced warming is proportional to the cumulative amount of CO2 emitted.


When it comes to Short-Lived Climate Polluters (SLCPs) such as methane, it is not the cumulative amount of emissions that determines the ultimate level of warming, but when the annual emissions of the SLCPs stabilise. 


With current emission levels, there is warming of 0.2-0.25°C per decade. Given that there has already been 1.1°C of warming, we have about 15-20 years until we reach 1.5°C if we continue to increase at current emission levels.


We would need to follow a straight line mitigation pathway to net zero emissions over the course of 30-40 years to cap the rise in temperatures at 1.5°C. For every decade of delay in starting this steep pathway to net zero, it means a commitment to an additional 0.2-0.25°C of warming.


What Is the Role of the Public in Achieving Net Zero?


The majority of voters in the UK now list climate change as one of their key concerns and those who organise demonstrations about the climate crisis claim that they have had a key role in the facilitation. 


Achieving net zero by 2050 is too late, certainly for the biodiversity in coral reefs and rainforests. It is possible to achieve net zero by 2025, however this would require significant political will and societal changes.


Climate activists are encouraged to show solidarity with climate scientists. However, there are tensions between climate activist claims and the predictions of climate scientists, who are accused of being too conservative.


The relationship between climate activists and climate scientists needs to improve, which poses the question of how they can better work together to achieve a common goal. Scientists ask activists to get behind the science, rather than attacking it, while activists claim that they are doing a better job of communicating the risks of climate change to the public, and are providing the political pressure to take the climate action that the scientists are recommending.


What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?

  • Energy efficiency is a highly underrated method of reducing emissions;


  • There is evidence that a major transformation towards a low carbon energy system is underway


  • Every decade delay in beginning full mitigation leads to an additional 0.2-0.25°C of warming;


  • There is tension in the relationship between climate activists and climate scientists which can be counterproductive

Net Zero on a Flourishing Planet
How Will Greenhouse Gas Removal Solutions Affect Nature and Society?

Nature based solutions (NbS) such as afforestation and reforestation, and wetland restoration is predicted to have mostly positive or neutral impacts across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, there are potential trade-offs in relation to food security and economic growth, where forestry/wetland may compete with agriculture for land resources. 

Biochar is found to have mostly positive implications for the SDGs, although how and where the biomass used to produce biochar is crucial. In some regions it may increase agricultural yields when added to soils, whereas it may have no impact in others. Equally, in some regions enhanced weathering of silicate rocks can improve food production, but could have negative impacts on water systems, depending on the mineral.

Soil carbon sequestration has the most positive implications for nature and society; increasing yields, supporting freshwater systems and sustaining economic activity associated with croplands.

Bioenergy with carbon capture storage (BECCS) has mixed impacts, which indicates the need for integrating bioenergy crop production into sustainably managed landscapes to mitigate impacts on food security and biodiversity. Although the social and environmental impacts of many solutions remain uncertain, there are a number of ‘no regret’ options, which should be pursued with urgency.

What Are The Implications of Net Zero for Land Use?

Land is a crucial resource for achieving net zero, with 23% of global emissions being associated with land use. Given the need to produce food for a population of 9 billion people while recovering biodiversity and protecting vulnerable species, solutions that demand large land allocations may be problematic. 

This means that GHG removal technologies need to be implemented with great care. In order to reduce the pressures currently placed on land, actions such as reducing food waste, dietary change and the use of natural materials in industry and construction play an important role.

Nature based solutions involve working with and enhancing nature to address societal goals. They can also play a vital role in achieving net zero provided they support biodiversity and are implemented through local stewardships. Current climate change policy and pathways to net zero favour single species tree plantations. However, such approaches are bad for biodiversity, compromise adaptation to climate change, and low diversity plantations have low resilience to climate extremes and new pathogens.

The greatest opportunities for NbS are protecting and restoring biodiverse ecosystems, especially in the tropics, as there is robust evidence from both science and practice that such ecosystems protect us from the worse impacts of climate change and can enhance socio-ecological resilience. 

However, these types of solutions can be viewed as vulnerable to climate change impacts, e.g. through increased frequency and intensity of fires. This is one of the key reasons that decarbonsing the economy remains the priotity – i.e. NbS are not an alternative to keeping fossil fuels in the ground and should not be used to offset emissions.

Transition or Transformation? The Politics of Net Zero

The social and political implications of net zero were explored and included the questions of what is desirable, for whom, and who decides. 

It is also important to include and incorporate different perspectives of gender, class and the Global South. The word ‘transition’ is commonly used in climate policy discourse, and is also often associated with techno-economic pathways for achieving emissions reductions. In emphasising the scale of change required to achieve net zero, transformations are needed across political and economic systems, social structures and cultural norms.

Not only does net zero demand new kinds of participatory politics and disruptive business models; the fundamental relationship between nature and society may need to be reimagined in order to generate more sustainable futures. 

When considering what constitutes a flourishing a planet, rich, diverse and resilient ecosystems go hand in hand with thriving societies. As part of these alternative visions of the future, the artificial separation of society from nature needs to be questioned. 

What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?
  • ​Although some social and environmental impacts of many solutions remain uncertain, enough is known about a number of options that means that they should be pursued with urgency

  • Nature based solutions can compliment technological innovation for reducing emissions

  • Achieving net zero should not rely on techno-economic pathways, but should also include different perspectives of gender, class, social structures and cultural norms

  • Nature based solutions are not an alternative to keeping fossil fuels in the ground but should be implemented in tandem with decarbonisation for the whole suite of vital ecosystem services that support sustainable development

Reducing Emissions Through Innovation
How Can We Approach Systems Change in Energy and Materials?

Systems change involves a range of diverse but key industry supply chains (plastics, steel, pulp and paper, and meat and dairy). For each of these systems truly deep change is required in the future. For example, plastic production will have to be radically rethought to be completely decoupled from the petrochemical industry. The supply chain “no longer be the plastic industry” as we know it today.

Such a transformation will require powerful and consistent intervention at varied points and for each industry these will be unique. Fortunately, research suggests that by systematically examining decarbonisation in supply chains, we can identify common leverage points. Important aspects are production and use optimisation, circular material flows, and electrification or diversification of feedstocks as frameworks for future action.

How Can We Achieve Net Zero Energy Systems?

Picking up on electrification and concentrating on the energy sector, three factors are required to reach a net zero energy system:

1. An energy supply dominated by production from renewables,

2. Electrification across systems,

3. Overall decreased demand for energy 

It is important to note that these changes should not be viewed in isolation as they will have interrelated, and often complementary, impacts.

Development of renewables, for example, can be expected to drive electrification; electrification may then lead to greater system efficiencies; and as these efficiencies reduce total energy demand for delivered energy, renewables in turn become more dominant within the supply system.

Renewable electricity prices per unit continue to fall relative to fossil fuel generation, while the cost of energy storage is also declining rapidly. Such processes are giving energy systems momentum.  

Stranded assets, particularly a young generation of coal power stations in developing countries, provide a daunting obstacle to further progress. Moreover, it should be remembered that electricity-linked CO2emissions currently represent only about 40% of global emissions. So rapid progress in renewable energy generation in countries like Germany has so far had little impact globally. However, looking ahead, a combined focus on reshaping demand and continuing to develop renewably sourced electricity offers great promise.

What Energy Improvements Are Needed for Net Zero?

Although technical innovation is producing energy storage solutions on diurnal or weekly scales, reliable storage over longer timescales poses a serious challenge, especially forcountries above high latitudes (c.50o) that have big winter heating demands. 

Current chemical and thermal energy-based answers to this problem are unlikely to be viable without work to reduce prices and improve their scalability; the priority has to be refurbishment of existing buildings to improve energy efficiency, along with climate-appropriate design and construction of new buildings to zero-carbon or carbon-positive standards. This in turn means investment in developing the skills to reinvent our built environment.

Sectors such as aviation and freight are difficult to electrify, therefore alternative energy solutions may need to be explored. It’s expected that alternative fuels based on biomass will be constrained in many places; hydrogen looks more promising.

What Are the Social Dimensions of Net Zero?

Energy systems exist to provide energy services to people and so change in the direction of Net Zero inevitably has a social dimension. 

All solutions, technical or otherwise, require people to imagine, design, implement, operate and govern them. A wealth of recent techincal innovation has opened up pathways towards Net Zero and now it is necessary to understand how to select the most suitable pathway, and how to implement them at effective scales. 

There will be regionally- and even locally-specific answers to these challenges, depending on the physical, social and political environments in which they have to be addressed.

What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?


  • A framework for future action includes themes of overall demand reduction (in wealthier economies), energy end-use and energy system efficiency, circular material flows, diversification or feedstocks, and electrification using renewable generation.

  • Improvements in energy end-use efficiency bring down the cost of establishing a renewables-based electricity system by reducing demand, while electrification of heating and transport increases the efficiency of providing these services: a powerful double effect.

  • Technological innovations to reach Net Zero are only viable when there are people available with the skills to implement them, and when they have social and political support.

  • The growing awareness of climate emergency and public pressure for action are positive factors that should assist with the challenge of innovating and adapting energy services in transport and the built environment, and with moving towards a circular economy in material.

Recapturing the Already Emitted

 What Are Greenhouse Gas Removal Technologies?

Greenhouse gas removal (GGR) technologies aim to actively remove greenhouse gases (e.g. CO2) from the atmosphere. The gases that have been removed require to be reliably stored for at least 1,000 years, preferably 10,000 years.

Several techniques, such as biochar, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), or soil carbon sequestration, use photosynthesis to achieve removal. 

Removal can also be engineered directly with chemical reactions: for example, Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS) use chemical sorbents, and enhanced weathering would grind silicate rocks, increasing the surface area and enhancing the natural rate of CO2 absorption.

These technologies are considered distinct from Nature Based Solutions with net negative greenhouse gas emissions such as afforestation and reforestation, land-management of soil carbon, and agroforestry.

Permanent storage of CO2 can be achieved through geological sequestration of greenhouse gases in subsurface rock formations. Alternatively, CO2 can be chemically converted into stable materials for building or other purposes. This is referred to as carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS).

What Role Can Greenhouse Gas Removal Technologies Play in Achieving Net Zero and the Goals of the Paris Agreement?

GGR technologies presently cost more than many forms of mitigation, such as enhanced energy efficiency, electrification, and renewable power. 

However, GGR is deployed in 87% of the cost-effective mitigation scenarios considered by the IPCC as consistent with the Paris limit of 2°C of warming.

GGR technologies are most useful for hard-to-decarbonise sectors of the economy, such as transport, agriculture, steel, aviation, cement, and chemical production. This would allow for some flexibility in mitigation, and, if available at scale, the maximum price of reducing net emissions by a tonne of CO2 is set by the cost of removing that tonne from the atmosphere. 

Some argue that managing sector-specific issues, stalled technologies, or policy failure will become exceedingly difficult without GGR technologies. The amount of GGR required depends on key factors including near-term emissions reductions and final energy demand.

What Is the Current State of Research, Development and Deployment of GGR Technologies?

Carbon capture and transportation has been used by the oil and gas industry for decades. In total, there are as many as 18 large-scale carbon capture storage (CCS) projects currently in operation, 5 under construction, and 20 further planned projects. CCS can be applied to GGR, cleaner industry, heat, or power.

Some GGR such forestry or biochar are ready to use. Other GGR technologies are mostly in the pilot project phase, such as BECCS at Drax, Enhanced Weathering at CarbFix, Iceland, and Direct Air Capture plants such as Climeworks in Switzerland. 

These pilot projects have demonstrated that GGR can be achieved with existing technology, but these pilot projects have demonstrated that GGR can be achieved with existing technology. Continuing research, development and deployment will increase size, improve efficiency and reduce costs.

The level of development and deployment for GGR technologies is well below the amount used in many scenarios. The 2°C scenario of the United Nations requires 100Mt per year of CO2 storage in Europe by 2030, compared to a mere 1.8 Mt CO2 per year in Europe during 2019.

What Are the Barriers to the Acceleration of GGR Development and Deployment and How Might They Be Addressed?

One major barrier to accelerated development and deployment of GGR technologies is a lack of incentive. Previous CCS projects have stalled due to cost overruns and uncertainty surrounding their future. Private investment is also limited by the lack of a clear business models to deploy GGR technologies without government subsidies to reduce costs.

This incentive issue could be addressed by a carbon price and a robust certification of storage and trading scheme, or by a targeted carbon price. Procurement rules, with supply side measures and regulations create markets to motivate industry.

What Are the Concerns Surrounding the Deployment of GGR Technologies?

GGR technologies use resources: direct air capture and enhanced weathering requires energy, while high levels of BECCS can put strain on the land area and freshwater required to grow the necessary feedstocks. Durability and reliability of storage is short in forestry, but long and secure in geology.

Other concerns are fairness, sustainability, and equity. These issues play out on intergenerational, international, and intrasectoral scales. Some argue that GGR poses a moral hazard, allowing polluting industries and nations to shift the burden onto future generations. Plans that assume GGRs will be available at scale by the end of the century will fail if the technology is not scaled up.

What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?

  • Engage youth with government action against climate change

  • Recommend common practice for reporting GGR sustainability

  • Support reduction of fossil fuel use, and a just transition

  • Devise a consistent and universal approach to UN-NDC accounting for us by all states including markets for verified storage by geology or in land



Policy Implications: Academic Advice for Policymakers

The Role of Governance and Frameworks

What Needs to Be Considered to meet the 1.5°C Goal of the Paris Agreement?

Parties in the Paris Agreement reaffirmed “the goal of limiting global temperature increase to well below 2°C, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. The IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C confirmed that limiting the rise in temperatures to 1.5°C is essential to avoid dangerous climate change. While the clamour for action to address the climate emergency is becoming even louder, this is not reflected in tangible action action being undertaken by governemnts. There is a need to bridge the gap between the ambition of the Paris Agreement and the actions required to achieve that ambition – failure to bridge this gap calls into question the credibility of the Paris Agreement.

Halting the rise in temperatures will require the achievement of net zero emissions and that requires both steep reductions in emissions and also large-scale removal of GHGs from the atmosphere.

What Are the Gaps and Challenges to Achieve CDR Governance?

There are a range of proposed Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) techniques and effective governance of them is essential. 

There are many gaps in the governance of GGR techniques that need to be filled to ensure that any such techniques are undertaken in a way that is consistent with other societal goals.

There is also a need for clarity about how GGR techniques will be reported on in NDCs and global stocktakes. There needs to be a commonality of methods, transparency in reporting and science based assessment of the efficacy of the range of GGR techniques.

Why Do We Need Forums for the Sustainable Development of CDR?

Governments need to create an effective policy framework that provides incentives to industry to develop and deploy GGR techniques, whilst at the same time ensuring that such techniques are congruent with the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Currently, climate change and the SDGs are considered in separate forums. However, large-scale deployment of GGR techniques will have material implications – both positive and negative – on a wide range of the SDGs. There needs to be discussion between a wide range of stakeholders to strengthen governance, enhance international cooperation and smooth out the complexities of the interactions between GGR techniques and the SDGs. Such discussions should involve international respresentation from policy, adademic, industrial and civil society ciricles.

How Can the use of Fossil Fuels Be Addressed in an International Context?

There is no direct reference to fossil fuels in the Paris Agreement. This reflects the vested interests some countries have in the role fossil fuels play in their energy security and in the functioning of their economies.

While not all countries may be willing to sign up to the phasing out of fossil fuel energy, there is a need for a coalition of countries that we willing to play a leading role in catalysing a just energy transition. By working together, those countries can restrict the shifting of production to low carbon-regulation jurisdictions and help establish equitable outcomes.

How Can We Align Fossil Fuel Supply with the Paris Agreement?

At least two-thirds of the world’s fossil fuel reserves will need to remain in the ground if we are to achieve the ambition of the Paris Agreement. Transitioning from fossil fuels to a low-carbon economy can be achieved through a combination of policies that (a) limit demand for fossil fuels and (b) limit supply of fossil fuels.

Demand for fossil fuels can be limited by adopting policies that encourage energy efficiency, further roll-out of renewable energy technologies and the adoption of carbon pricing. Supply can be limited by restricting further exploration for fossil fuel energy and by inhibiting the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels.

What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?

  • Governments need to act now to bridge the gap between the ambition of the Paris Agreement and the actions required to achieve that ambition;

  • Governance needs to be developed for proposed GGR techniques. This requires engaging with a wide range of stakeholders and consideration of the interaction between GGR and the SDGs;

  • Most fossil fuel energy will need to remain in the ground if we are to achieve the ambition of the Paris Agreement. Actions are required to limit both demand for, and supply of, fossil fuel energy;

  • Vested interests in some countries make them unwilling to phase out fossil energy. There is a need for those countries that are willing to lead in this space to take coordinated action to achieve a just energy transition

Achieving Net Zero in Cities

Why Is It Important to Focus on the Substantial Scale of Climate Change Efforts?

Cities currently account for more than 70% of greenhouse gases, and around 80% of global GDP. The global urban population is set to rise to nearly 70% by the year 2050. 

While Copenhagen has made a Net Zero commitment by 2025, there are over 10,000 subnational regions and 6,000 cities and companies that have not set climate targets. Cities are therefore crucial sites in the transition from setting climate targets and the delivery of these ambitions. Empowering the local level through city-based global governance structures could facilitate achieving these targets. 

Fossil fuel companies that act as key electricity providers at the regional level need to be held accountable for their emissions. There is a need to ensure that a steady transition to renewables in underway, and requires pressure from various shareholders and stakeholders across different scales.

Grappling with the problems and solutions to climate breakdown could cause fear and anxiety among the public, given the dramatic changes required in their lifestyle choices. Continuous interaction with the public at the local level by city administrative authorities is necessary for retaining consensus around climate targets and policies, and for mobilising resources to implement these initiatives. 

What Are the Challenges Being Faced at Subnational Levels?

The transition of fossil fuel companies to renewable sources of energy has been slower than expected. Around 70% of these companies have been labelled as companies in transition, and have seen a positive growth in renewables. However, even though the number of utilities with a mixed asset base has increased over time but shares of renewables has remained low. 

It has been found that the transition from coal has been accompanied by greater growth in the production of gas. Thus, there is a need to think more critically about the transition to renewables and its implication for the net zero target. 

In terms of energy renovation for buildings, the number of dwellings renovated so far are lower than expected. The performance of renovated buildings has also been poor. The barriers for energy renovation include the lack of efforts taken by public sector stakeholders, difficulties faced by individual households in decision-making and the weaknesses of knowledge, skills and enterprise. 

Currently, renovations are still in experimental stage, such as in the case of the Energiesprong approach in France. The initiatives have been fragmented and have failed to be reproduced over the long term. In order to scale up renovations, there is a need for active government support and complementary public policy, changes in forms of contracts, stakeholder practices and the development of new skills.

At present, many companies are operating on the assumption that net zero is unachievable. Companies should set a date before which they will achieve net zero emissions – not just in their operations but also from the use of their products. Investor-owned fossil fuel companies should disclose current and targeted annual absolute emissions. A business model needs to be developed whereby verifiable mid-term targets are set for reducing emissions. These business plans should ensure profitability at net zero, in order to be sustainable. Shareholders must take an active role in questioning more, and scrutinizing the company’s actions. 

What Are Some Recommendations for Net Zero at the Local Level?

Councils have an important role to play as a democratically elected body that can define the city. City councils could choose to take responsibility for its emissions, by declaring a climate emergency. This would involve acknowledging that business cannot continue as usual, and exceptional steps need to be taken to tackle climate issues. Local governing bodies would have to work in close partnership with others who have greater levels of control, and multilevel coordination is needed for effective contributions at the local level. 

At the local level, there is also the opportunity to develop the ‘Community Wealth Building Model’, which involves working alongside organisations that are anchored in the region or city in order to create new business opportunities and boost the local economy.  This might be seen as a way for local authorities to share ambitious goals around decarbonisation with the community more equitably, and generate mechanisms to support and hold one another accountable. For example, the council could look at energy purchase and procurement as a business case for local employment and wealth-building. 

Local governing bodies could also control various levers to prioritise retro-fitting in buildings, ensuring that private householders with higher carbon footprints to pay higher council taxes, and ensuring that new homes are built within the zero carbon guidelines. 

Lastly, citizen assemblies held by local administrative authorities present a democratic means whereby a microcosm of the city can be brought together to discuss efforts towards achieving net zero. 

What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?

  • Due to rapid urbanisation and subsequent large growth in GHGs, cities are crucial in setting and meeting climate targets 

  • Research has found that the transition from coal has resulted in greater growth of gas production, so we need to think more critically about energy transition and their implications for net zero 

  • Companies should set a date before which they will achieve net zero, as many are currently operating on the assumption that they will not achieve this goal


Net Zero and Equity, Ethics, and Justice


Why Should Having the Last Chance on Climate Change Matter?

The current generation is seeking to limit the severity of climate change for future generations. However, how far are we prepared to take this and why is it important for us to try?

Managing climate change is crucial not just today but by the nature of the crisis for all generations to come. Acting now means we can lessen the burden on future generations.

The decisions we make now will affect future actions and needs. If we have and share empathy for future generations, it is only fair we protect them by reducing emissions and controlling atmospheric GHG concentrations.

The burden of climate change presents physical, socio-economic and socio-political impacts. For example, the failure to remove CO2 from the atmosphere will trigger physical-climatic impacts, which could result in massive shifts of populations and migrant flows due to induced flooding and heat-rise. The effect does not respect state boundaries and multilateral actors need to be aware of this to take coordinated civil response. 

If we do not address all aspects of climate change in the short-term, future generations will not only endure the greater physical effects of climate change, but also experience harsher socioeconomic circumstances, under which mitigating emissions might be made ever more difficult.

What Ethical Issues Arise from Stock and Flow Pollutants?

There is tendency to treat all GHGs as equivalent to CO2. However, this approach to GHG reductions raises issues of fairness based on the different emissions profiles of countries. For example, CO2 is a long-lived GHG (stock pollutant), accumulating over time, whilst methane is short-lived GHG (flow pollutant) that only remains in the atmosphere for around a decade. Consequently, if long and short-lived GHGs are increasing, so are the associated effects. 

However if flow pollutants decrease, their effects drop off. Similarly, if sinks for pollutants are temporal, GHGs can be re-released and the effect passed onto further generations; this is of particular issue with types of non-permanent CO2 sinks.

Issues of fairness arise when trading off fossil fuel emissions (often wealthier countries) with subsistence emissions (often poorer countries) by treating the two as equivalent. Should the “polluter-pays” rendition include the impacts of different atmospheric lifetimes of GHGs and their effects on intergenerational stock versus flow pollutants?

It is questionable whether methane, typically associated with subsistence production such as rice, should in fairness be traded off against CO2 that is more associated with energy production. 

How Do Different GHGs Impact upon Intergenerational Justice?

From 1750 to 1900, early fossil fuel uses of prior generations left a permanent climate-warming legacy. Our legacy from coal-use prevails as it is mostly cumulative, and changes to future levels of CO2 production will not change this. Methane emissions are however not cumulative and legacy-yielding, and reducing production levels will see decreases in atmospheric methane concentration and thus the climatic effect. 

This raises the point of fairness when accounting for stock and flow GHG producing activities, and the impacts in tailoring required actions for climate change control within different nations. Countries with the highest ratio of methane to CO2 emissions (equivalents) have the lowest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, and vice versa for lowest ratios, which raises issues of fairness in climate policy and contributions to net zero.

For trade-offs, we similarly need to be aware of temporary versus permanent carbon capture. For example, trading carbon emissions on international markets for nature-based solutions such as a permanent forest balances. However trading off emissions for plantation forests does not mitigate nor remove CO2 but instead places it in a circular flow of sequestration and de-sequestration which does not remove a problem for future generations.

Given differing characteristics and sources, it is considered we must firstly focus on CO2 reduction by transitioning away from fossil fuels.

How Can We Make a Just Energy Transition?

The concept of a ‘just transition’ appeals to ensuring that efforts toward decarbonisation are underpinned 

by equity and justice concerns. Attention to local government and local perspectives, which tend to remain marginalised in the macro-level, are necessary in any ‘just transition’ debate. The protection of jobs and livelihoods is a dominant narrative; however, strategic framings often need to go beyond this to incorporate concerns for democracy, decentralisation, energy ownership, economic restructuring and redistribution of wealth.

The tensions brought about through different understandings of a ‘just transition’ away from polluting technologies align with previous trade-offs between sustainability and social justice goals. These include tensions between decarbonisation and the elements of inclusivity, recognition and equity. Understanding the ‘just transition’ discourse, particularly from local perspectives, are crucial to advancing a ‘just transition’ toward a decarbonised economy becomes a reality.

What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?

  • Immediate action against climate change is essential to lessen the burden on future generations. Unfairly discounting costs and benefits to future generations may undervalue the added risks associated with a climate-changed world.

  • Create new forums for all players involved in fossil fuel reduction and a just transition

  • Call for individual GHG impact appraisal that goes beyond equivalence and include atmospheric lifetimes and sink timeframes


Required Policies and Financial Incentives

How Should Policymakers Think About Carbon Taxes?

The latest developments in Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) continue to show that a carbon tax can be a simple and effective tool for policy makers. Setting a price on carbon opens policy pathways that can be tuned to reach model temperature goals, such as the 1.5C target set under the Paris Agreement. 

Setting an optimal policy pathway for carbon pricing allows decision makers to select for a peak global temperature. Future reductions and eventual declines in global temperatures are strongly influenced by the financial incentives generated from a strong carbon tax. Very simple policies such as a carbon tax can be highly effective and easy to communicate to stakeholders and to the public.

This policy can be made simple to communicate due to recent modeling exercises, which show that a carbon price that increases by a set amount annually can reduce climate risk, compared to a price set by a more complicated equation or set of rules. 

Setting clear and predictable financial incentives with a linearly increasing carbon tax reduces the potential to overshoot temperature targets, ultimately reducing the risk to society and decreasing the need to deploy CO2 removal (CDR) technologies at scale.

How Should Policymakers Think About Complex or Expensive CDR Technologies?

Climate suffering exists here and now. Real human beings, tens of thousands, face a variety of impacts from climate change across the world today. CO2 in the atmosphere represents a legacy of suffering that should strongly influence and frame the policy process and change how decision makers view developing CDR technologies such as direct air capture (DAC) and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Policies designed to enhance energy efficiency and reduce emissions should remain the first priority for policymakers as these are the cheapest and most effective methods currently available to achieve net zero. 

However, several IPCC scenarios in the 1.5C report utilise CDR technologies to balance remaining emissions. Policymakers should therefore also investigate and utilise CDR strategies alongside energy efficiency and emissions reductions in order to increase impact, because even 1.5C represents a substantial increase in climate related damages and impacts.

Governments have several policy options available, including funding research and development, providing limited subsidies, using government procurement or competitive prizes, and regulation designed to create market demand for CDR technologies.

An example is Norway’s ongoing demonstration projects with CCS. The government has partnered with key industry stakeholders on test projects designed to capture a third of emissions in sectors such as cement production and waste management. 

By shouldering some of the financial risk, the government is enabling CCS technology to enter a testing phase earlier and potentially become viable on a faster timeline.

How Can We Effectively Engage with the Public on Climate Policies?

Engaging the public is critical for socially robust and enduring policy decisions. Designing and implementing public communication infrastructure can accelerate the deployment of climate policy and incentivise market changes. Today’s communication on climate policy is often technical and political, an exclusionary way of communicating one of the most important policy issues today.

New policies and market changes surrounding climate change will be needed for net zero, and the public will have a large role in determining whether these changes succeed or fail. Under the UNFCCC treaty, decision makers have an obligation to educate and engage citizens.

Climate change policies often have a high degree of support from the public, but bringing the public into dialogue with industry and political decision makers is often difficult because they are speaking different languages.

To better engage with the public, climate communication should focus on values rather than numbers. Different messages can be deployed to reach across diverse audiences across the identity and political spectrums. 

Focusing on human stories and benefits to local communities using real world language and trusted messengers can revolutionize climate change communication. Benefits to people strike to the heart of the issue and encourage people to share what is most important to them.

What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?

  • A linear carbon tax is perhaps the simplest policy available and reduces climate risk compared to more complicated emissions trading schemes or other pricing equations 

  • Climate communication is currently inadequate and risks a lack of public support for climate policy; this could be improved through focusing on values and using simple language

  • Integrate a communications strategy into the heart of the policy making process, not just an addition at the end of it

  • Use policy innovation and financial incentives to foster a wide range of climate policies, including targeted interventions in increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions while fostering longer term CDR technologies


Increasing Ambition Under Net Zero


How Does the Paris Agreement Aim to Increase Ambition over Time?

Under the Paris Agreement, each country must determine, plan, and regularly report on their contribution to climate change mitigation. The individual contributions each country needs to make to achieve the global goal are determined by their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The agreement establishes two linked processes to promote rising ambition, each on a five-year cycle. 

The first process is a “global stocktake” to assess collective progress toward meeting the agreement’s long-term goals. Parties will then submit new NDCs that are informed by the outcomes of the global stocktake. The agreement sets the expectation that each party’s successive NDC will represent progression beyond its previous one hence achieving a ratcheting up of ambition over time.

What Do the Current NDCs Say and What Happens Next?

Analysis by Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of research institutions, concluded that the current NDCs are likely to result in warming of about 3C by 2100. Revised NDCs must be submitted ahead of COP 26, and the first formal stocktake will then take place in 2023, followed by the submission of revised NDCs by 2025.

Might Brexit Derail COP 26 Ambitions?

It is widely acknowledged that the success of COP 21 in Paris was made possible by the considerable efforts of the French diplomats over the months and years preceding the meeting.  There is a concern that the British government will fail to match this effort because Brexit is continuing to take so much resource and attention.  

Without proper preparation there is danger that realistic targets of what we want achieved will not even be set, making the chances of a successful outcome even harder to reach.

What Else Must the UK Do to Further Ambition at COP 26?

The UK is the first major economy in the world to pass laws to reach net zero by 2050. However there is a clear disconnect between that level of ambition and any clear policies/mechanisms to get there. The UK must urgently put policies in place to show other countries it is willing and able to make the transition to net zero. 

At the same time it must unlock resources to help less developed countries with mitigation and adaptation measure, in particular, in relation to the US$160bn of loss and damage that climate change is already doing.

How will the development of negative emissions technology be supported?

In 2007, Drax power station produced 22m tonnes of CO2 making it the largest single source of CO2 in the UK.  Since then it has converted four of its six 645MW units from coal to biomass. It did this because of two government energy policies:

  1. The carbon price (EU ETS price plus the Carbon Price Support) increased the cost of coal generation; and 

  2. Subsidies for renewable generation under the Renewables Obligation and early stage Contract for Difference. 

Now, Drax is turning its attention to BECCS, capturing (and releasing) about 1 tonne of CO2 per day. However without significant government subsidies it has little potential to develop BECCS technology. Currently negative emissions have no commercial value and that must change if they are to develop.

Although strong carbon prices are touted as the most economically optimal choice, a carbon price high enough to make BECCS economic is unlikely to be politically acceptable since it would raise the wholesale electricity price for consumers. Therefore a direct subsidy of one kind or another seems the only way forward. 

What Areas Are Governments Currently Accused of Turning A Blind Eye to in Regards to Transparency and Trust?

The International Monetary Fund estimate about $5 trillion is currently spent subsidising fossil fuels each year. It’s hard for governments to establish any kind of net zero credibility without this being addressed. Aviation and shipping are not explicitly included under the Paris Agreement; if these were included in NDCs, they would be under much more scrutiny. There have also been no repercussions of the US ceasing further participation in the Paris Agreement in 2017.

What Is Holding Us Back from Targeting Net Zero?

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) estimate over 60% of abatement will involve societal/behavioural changes. However to date, most of the focus has been on achieving cost reductions for low-carbon technologies. Economics has tended to dominate the narrative, whilst the moral argument tends to attract less attention from the press. Ambition under the Paris Agreement will only align with net zero when a significant volume of the world’s population think it’s the right thing to do. The economic and diplomatic effort invested in the Paris Agreement should be re-aligned to this end. 

What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?

  • The current NDCs are likely to result in warming of about 3C by 2100

  • It’s difficult for governments to establish net zero credibility without addressing the subsidising of fossil fuels

  • The majority of the UK’s focus has been on achieving cost reductions for low-carbon technologies, but it is estimated that over half of abatement will involve societal and behavioural changes

  • The economic and diplomatic efforts invested in the Paris Agreement should be re-aligned to bridge the gap between ambition and achieving net zero