Getting Net Zero Right

Getting Net Zero Right

Net Zero: the meaning of net zero and how to get it right

The concept of net-zero carbon emissions has emerged from physical climate science. However, it is operationalized through social, political and economic systems. This page identifies seven attributes of net zero, which are important to make it a successful framework for climate action, using a recent paper from Oxford Net Zero affiliated academics in Nature Climate Change. The seven attributes highlight the urgency of emission reductions, which need to be front-loaded, and of coverage of all emission sources, including currently difficult ones. The attributes emphasize the need for social and environmental integrity. This means carbon dioxide removals should be used cautiously and the use of carbon offsets should be regulated effectively. Net zero must be aligned with broader sustainable development objectives, which implies an equitable net-zero transition, socio-ecological sustainability and the pursuit of broad economic opportunities.

The  adoption of net-zero targets

Attributes of a credible net zero

The readiness with which a growing number of countries, sub-national entities and individual organizations have made net-zero pledges speaks to the unifying and galvanizing power of the net-zero narrative. These pledges should be encouraged. However, there is concern that these often-voluntary commitments allow too much discretion in the design of net-zero pathways and may therefore not be consistent with global net zero, or with ambitious climate action more generally.

Governance, accountability and reporting mechanisms are currently inadequate. Long-term ambition is often not backed up by sufficient near-term action. Many entities have not yet set out detailed plans to achieve their pledges and are opaque about the role of carbon offsets in place of cutting their own emissions. The environmental and social integrity of some of these offsets is questionable. As a result, some advocates have accused these pledges of amounting to little more than ‘greenwashing’.

These concerns do not negate the scientific logic of global net zero. However, they demonstrate the need for clear guardrails to ensure the robustness of net zero as a framework for climate action. Below, we set out seven attributes that we believe a successful net-zero framework must have.

Looking for further insight into what net zero is?


Front Loaded Emission Reductions

Speed is crucial – we need to combine long-term net zero commitments with immediate action and short-term interim targetsScientists have demonstrated that every year of delay before initiating emission reductions decreases the remaining time available to reach net-zero emissions while keeping below 1.5 °C by approximately two years.


Front-loading emission reductions also preserves optionality. In particular, it maintains the option to further tighten remaining carbon budgets in light of new scientific findings, for example, if carbon cycle feedbacks (such as more rapid thaw of permafrost) begin to add to anthropogenic emission.

A comprehensive approach to emission reductions

We must tackle all emissions, including in the most difficult sectors. This will require broad societal support.

A critical facet of net zero is the comprehensive emissions abate- ment that it implies. Under partial emissions targets, it was possible to subsume difficult emissions sources under the residual emissions that would remain. Net zero removes this option (except for the possibility of carbon removal, see attribute 3 below). It means tackling all emissions.

Cautious use of carbon dioxide removal and storage

We need both emissions reductions and carbon dioxide removal, regulated to address trade-offs, safety, and permanence. Producing carbon dioxide from fossil sources has a permanent impact which must be balanced by removal and equally permanent storage for a durable net zero.

In principle, net zero can be achieved through different levels of residual emissions and different forms of compensating removals. In reality, there is a strong case for a net-zero carbon balance that combines a very low level of residual emissions with low levels of multi-decadal removals.

Effective Regulation of carbon offsets

We need rigorous quality standards to ensure the environmental integrity of carbon offsets.

The need for social and environmental integrity in carbon dioxide removal is linked to the integrity, and appropriate regulation, of carbon offsets. Previous experience with carbon offset markets, such as the Clean Development Mechanism or the current voluntary carbon market, suggests that the environmental integrity of carbon offsets will be problematic, unless quality standards are upgraded and scrupulously enforced.

An equitable transition to net zero

The burden of meeting net zero must be shared fairly. Some countries may need to reach net zero faster to create room for others; developing countries will need support.

Fairness is an essential aspect of climate action. The fairness of net zero depends on how the burden of meeting the global target is shared across countries and within countries (for example, between regions, industries and population groups). This is a long-standing challenge for climate action, now compounded by the need to ensure that car- bon removals (for example, through nature-based solutions) bol- ster, rather than impede, a just transition to zero-carbon societies.

Alignment with broader socio-ecological objectives

Net zero plans should be aligned with complementary sustainability objectives, otherwise there can be unintended consequences for biodiversity and indigenous people, for example.

Climate change is one of several pressing socio-ecological challenges, most of them interlinked. In some cases, climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’, exacerbating the negative impacts of other stressors (such as land-use change) on ecosystems and the communities dependent on them. In others, climate change and other environmental stressors have the same root causes. For example, land-use change is both the biggest driver of biodiversity declines (accounting for approximately 30% of declines in global terrestrial habitat integrity)68 and the second biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions (accounting for 23%).

Pursuit of new economic opportunities

Net zero prosperity may materialise, for example through a virtuous cycle of clean investment, renewal and growth. To ensure this transition is fair, we need cross-sector collaboration, generous social protection and investment in education and skills.

The scientific reality of a finite global carbon budget makes it easy to frame net zero as a zero-sum game. The narrative of burden sharing remains prominent in the international negotiations, and indeed how the remaining carbon space is allocated is an essential aspect of climate justice. Yet it is increasingly becoming clear that net zero can also be an economic opportunity. The economics literature has started to document the channels through which net-zero prosperity may materialize. In the short term, this includes the contribution zero-carbon investment can make to a sustainable economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, subject to debt constraints

the future of Net Zero

Next Steps

Limiting the rise in global average temperatures to whatever level ultimately requires a balance between the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and its removal into sinks. The growth in net-zero commitments from countries, corporations and sub-national entities suggests that decision-makers increasingly understand this scientific reality.

Net-zero commitments are not an alternative to urgent and comprehensive emissions cuts. Indeed, net zero demands greater focus on eliminating difficult emissions sources than has so far been the cause. The ‘net’ in net zero is essential, but the need for social and environmental integrity imposes firm constraints on the scope, timing and governance of both carbon dioxide removal and carbon offsets. Not all these aspects are as yet sufficiently understood. The socio-political interpretation of net zero is therefore also a rich research agenda, and it will require input from many disciplines, from climate science, biology and geology to anthropology, law and economics.

There are clear risks of getting net zero wrong. However, the science leaves no alternatives if global temperature is to be stabilised. If interpreted right and governed well, net zero can be an effective frame of reference for climate action.

News and Events

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New ONZ report on rolling out renewables in the Global South
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Oxford Net Zero at COP28
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The Oxford Net Zero community is mobilising its collective expertise to help drive ambition at COP28, being held in the UAE from 30 November – 12 December. Read more

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