‘Net zero’ has become a powerful but contested frame of reference to define and judge climate ambition. The concept emerged from a series of scientific break-throughs that highlighted the determining impact of cumulative emissions of CO2 on global warming, and has shifted the focus of climate policy towards placing a cap on the total anthropogenic emissions cumulatively released into the atmosphere (Allen et al 2022). This understanding of climate dynamics found political expression in Article 4.1 of the Paris Agreement, which stated the need to ‘reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible’ and achieve ‘a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’ (UNFCCC 2015). Since then, these objectives have been translated into myriad pledges by state and non-state actors to reach net zero emissions by mid-century. As of February 2023, countries with net zero targets accounted for 92% of global gross domestic product and 88% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Lang et al 2022).
Is it then time to ‘rouse ourselves from the net- zero hangover’ (Buck 2021, p 19) and find a better vehicle for climate justice? Or can the scientific and policy mechanisms that net zero has set in motion—and the broader scope of climate ambition they connote—still serve as an effective instrument for those aspirations? Our view is that current initiatives to tighten net zero governance offer a belated but real opportunity to reverse the trends that have de-coupled net zero target-setting from the pursuit of inclusive, climate compatible and sustainable development. We start by identifying those trends, before proposing ways of undoing them.