Can ‘Net Zero’ still be an instrument of climate justice?

Jun 19, 2023

‘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.

Publication details
Net zero & sustainable development The meaning of net zero
Research paper
Khosla, Radhika Lezaun, Javier McGivern, Alexis Omukuti, Jessica
Environmental Research Letters

Latest news

Job Opening at ONZ: Youth Climate Training Assistant
Job Opening at ONZ: Youth Climate Training Assistant

The Oxford Net Zero Engagement Team (based at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment) is looking for a motivated individual to support the team 8 hours a week for 12 weeks (96 hours in total) in the second delivery of the Youth ... Read more

Onshore geological carbon storage has potential in the UK, but key knowledge and regulatory gaps remain – ONZ report
Onshore geological carbon storage has potential in the UK, but key knowledge and regulatory gaps remain – ONZ report

A new report by a team of Oxford Net Zero researchers reviews the current state of knowledge on onshore geological carbon storage (GCS) and its feasibility in the UK. Read more

Oxford launches revised Offsetting Principles
Oxford launches revised Offsetting Principles

As part of their net zero strategies, many companies, organisations, cities, regions and financial institutions are relying on voluntary carbon credits to offset their residual emissions. But evidence continues to cast doubt on the integrity of ... Read more

See more news and events