Committing to Net Zero Means…Committing to What, Exactly?

by Chris Armstrong on January 17, 2023

The goal of Net Zero emissions by 2050 has had a remarkable rise to the forefront of climate politics. Governments and corporations are falling over one another to commit to it. That in itself might sow some suspicion about how firm or flexible a target Net Zero is. In a recent piece with Duncan McLaren, we try to show that the flexibility of the goal is a real danger. We might be tempted to think that, once we all agree on Net Zero by 2050, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief (so long as we…ah…actually implement our various commitments).

But things are not so simple. Net Zero is an important part of the solution. It would involve any carbon emissions being balanced by carbon removals, and that should allow the climate to stabilise (i.e to stop warming further). But the precise temperature it stabilises at will depend on how much carbon we emit before 2050, and that is a question about which the Net Zero goal is, of course, silent.

Consider some possibilities. Taking radical action to decarbonise our economies during the 2020s would mean relatively modest cumulative emissions, and could mean the global average temperature stabilises in the +1.5 to +2C range. Leaving radical action until the 2040s would mean much greater cumulative emissions, and could mean it stabilises in the +2.5C range or well beyond. From the point of view of climate change, cumulative emissions are all-important – but committing to Net Zero by 2050 does not guarantee any particular temperature outcome. It’s rather like saying, ‘I’m not going to tell you how many times I’m going to kick you. But I am going to stop by 2050.’

All of this suggests we need to peek carefully under the bonnet of Net Zero commitments, and see just what they commit various actors to. Some corporations’, and some sectors’, commitments to Net Zero turn out on closer inspection to assume that they will go on emitting quite freely, with their emissions counterbalanced by hoped-for carbon removals elsewhere. But these hopes are not necessarily compatible with each other. Moreover many removal techniques are unproven, and some are likely to be problematic in various ways (for instance, by driving up food, water, land, or energy prices for the poor). At the same time, social justice speaks in favour of targeting ‘residual’ permissions to emit at the poor, so that they can meet their basic nutritional and energy needs, rather than allowing the rich to continue flying, say. But the broad commitment to Net Zero does not settle that question.

In many ways, then, there are not one but myriad Net Zeros that we could aim at, all with different social, environmental and distributive implications. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that an idea that has been the focus for so much apparent agreement – between actors whose material interests are, surely, quite opposed – turns out to be quite hard to pin down. But it does mean that, to the extent that Net Zero is an important climate goal (albeit certainly not the only one), the struggle to define, argue for and implement a socially- and environmentally-just version of that goal is a vital one.



Charlie W 01.17.23 at 8:33 am

‘Net Zero’ should be dropped in favour of ‘decarbonisation’. There’s a pessimism and a ‘zero sum’ association to the first term that helps nobody and, as you say, there’s a lot of vagueness around the offsetting component.

Decarbonisation will be a change, for sure, but less radical than, say, electrification was, and even more beneficial. Abundance and security of supply. The technologies are all at hand, and there are only a few countries (Singapore?) that don’t have access to renewable generation resources at scale (typically wind or solar). Storage to address intermittency requires infra (hydrogen manufacturing and distribution) but is technically feasible. There is just so much energy there for the taking. In retrospect, we’ll be astonished that we waited.

There is an innovation to do list that includes things like decarbonised concrete. This isn’t a show stopper.


John Q 01.17.23 at 8:51 am

The standard way of thinking about this is in terms of carbon budgets. There’s a useful explainer here

Given that we will almost certainly exceed the budget for a reasonable chance of 1.5 degrees, we will need to think about removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere after 2050. Most of the options are problematic, but the easiest is to stop emitting methane, which has a relatively short residence time, and would mostly be gone by 2100 with zero emissions post-2050.


engels 01.17.23 at 1:50 pm

It’s rather like saying, ‘I’m not going to tell you how many times I’m going to kick you. But I am going to stop by 2050.’

Or as Augustine said: “give me chastity and continence, but not yet”.


Salem 01.17.23 at 2:37 pm

It’s rather like saying, ‘I’m not going to tell you how many times I’m going to kick you. But I am going to stop by 2050.’

Not really, because there’s no way to “un-kick” someone. It’s more like saying we’re going to balance the budget by 2050. It doesn’t say how much debt we’re going to run up in the meantime, and it doesn’t say who’s going to have to give up what to make it happen. You rightly point out the same is true with Net Zero. The balanced budget target leaves open the implication that, post-2050, if debt is too high, we can go one step further and run a budget surplus until enough of the accumulated debt is paid down. And the Net Zero target – as JQ makes explicit – contains the same implication.

Now, I don’t think balancing the budget is necessarily desirable, whereas balancing our carbon emissions is, so I’m not trying to equate the two targets in terms of value. But in terms of that kind of target-setting, I think the comparison is instructive in a number of other ways:
* The target is vague, and liable to political manipulation by insiders.
* It is deliberately silent as to whose ox is getting gored. This is worrying because it suggests a lack of political support for the means necessary to achieve the ends.
* It is far beyond any political horizon that matters for purposes of accountability. There will always be a crisis to excuse our “temporary” de-prioritisation of the target, and someone else to blame if we aren’t making long-term progress.
* It is silent as to the path after 2050, allowing the most lukewarm to imagine a relaxation of the target, and the most ardent to imagine new, stronger targets. Again, this vagueness is not necessarily desirable.

But I strongly doubt we have the political mechanisms to do much better than this kind of Net Zero target. Society today has no good way to bind society of 2043 into continually reducing emissions, and so the best we can do is going to be somewhat unsatisfactory. But I remain optimistic that technology will once again save us from politics and society.


Chris Armstrong 01.17.23 at 3:50 pm

@Salem – Yes, that’s a better simile. And what you say contains a lot of truth, I think.


Seekonk 01.17.23 at 4:12 pm

One way to limit carbon emission is to decrease demand for energy by reducing population. Perhaps the Roman Catholic Church could be persuaded to reinterpret God’s position on birth control and women’s choice.


engels 01.17.23 at 4:23 pm

there’s no way to “un-kick” someone. It’s more like saying we’re going to balance the budget by 2050. It doesn’t say how much debt we’re going to run up in the meantime

I suppose this is true but it’s also true that climate change caused by carbon emissions is already causing harms, including deaths, that can not be undone.


engels 01.17.23 at 4:32 pm

Alternative analogy: “I’m going to stop putting lead in your water in 2050. Maybe if the concentration is too high by then I will start treating it but unfortunately you might get brain damage in the mean time.”


Peter Dorman 01.17.23 at 5:47 pm

Please allow me to be exasperated for a moment. I happened to have published a book (Alligators in the Arctic and How to Avoid Them) last year that devoted much of its analysis to why the net zero framework is wrong, for both countries and personal/organizational entities, and how to operationalize its alternative, the remaining carbon budget metric. Almost every chapter has material on this; I’m sure it adds up to 50-100 pages.

But here we are, in a world in which those in a position to decide such things have decided to go with net zero. (The decider club contains few if any climate scientists, but to remain relevant those with the expertise have to go along for the ride.) As the OP and the comments here aver, such pledges are vaporous and carry little accountability. They rest on a wide and dubious range of assumptions about the potential for future carbon removal and the response of earth systems to overshooting. They say next to nothing about how much carbon will accumulate in the atmosphere and how much warming we will therefore have to undergo. It is likely that these defects are precisely the virtues that caused net zero to be anointed with official approval.

But there’s so much more to say, both critically about the existing framework and constructively about what should replace it. This audience, more than most, should understand that a sustained analysis, such as you’d find in an academic book that engages the scholarly literature, can go deeper than a few paragraphs of blog commentary. I’d appreciate it if people who care about climate change would read the damn book, and if they see weaknesses in its argument—which they probably will—point them out.


Zamfir 01.17.23 at 6:34 pm

The article is describing a very wide range of trajectories, much wider than seems realistic to me. The edge cases are described as decarbonisation in the 2020s, and nothing followed by decarbonisation in the 2040s.

Most of the changes before 2030 will be the outcome of actions that already done -or not. There is not that much scope to bend the curve early. If we decide to accelerate (or deccelarate) today, then that will mostly show up in the 2030s, not before.

And conversely, if we want to reach somewhat-zeroish by 2050, then the big, relatively easy changes have to be done by 2040. There will be enough hard leftovers (technically and politically) for the 2040s. I am not sure if we can tell today how hard they really will be.


Rob 01.18.23 at 9:55 am

100% agree. And this is already flowing through to other politics and policy, beyond just the 2050 targets. An arcane example that made the penny drop for me:

I work in buildings and energy policy for a climate NGO. My country’s standards for home energy efficiency standards were up for review last year. Most of the climate orgs and experts working on this got behind changes that were technical but meant less energy use, more renewables and less gas – all good stuff. But our groups split, because some people argued hard for ‘net zero’ homes. They were convinced that this was the strongest position, and saw any NGOs who backed the other model as sellouts etc.

But what they were arguing for was in fact WEAKER than what the government was offering, not stronger. Net Zero for homes either doesn’t have a definition, or (in the eyes of our government) has a clear definition of having rooftop solar that exports more to the grid than the home imports (regardless of gas use, thermal efficiency, grid optimisation, etc). If this got up, it would genuinely, genuinely be a much worse outcome with more emissions than the version that we ended up winning! We just couldn’t convince our allies of this technical reality, because net zero sounds good. The split was deep with fighting as bitter as anything you’ll see in the climate movement, which is saying something.

I’m not sure if this is illustrative or just a workplace rant – but I do think it’s a cautionary tale for campaigners when it comes to Net Zero.


engels 01.18.23 at 1:28 pm

Makes you think.

Oxfam said extreme concentrations of wealth led to weaker growth, corrupted politics and the media, corroded democracy and led to political polarisation. The super-rich were key contributors to the climate crisis, the charity added, with a billionaire emitting a million times more carbon than the average person. They were also twice as likely to invest in polluting industries, compared with the average investor.


Zamfir 01.18.23 at 2:11 pm

@Rob, I recognize your exact example. There are plenty of new houses here (in the Netherlands) that carry a weird number of solar panels. The developer has added exactly the minimal number to push the building into some higher green label, as panels give most points per euro.

I am skeptical that this is truly caused by the exact wording if climate ambitions. If the goal was just Zero by 2050, the same people would still argue that the panels make the house Zero. Same if the target was formulated as a carbon budget, or any other way.

The problem of summer and winter energy is not that hard to understand even if it is difficult to fix. Its mostly willful ignorance when people pretend not to understand.


Trader Joe 01.18.23 at 6:13 pm

I would tend to agree with most comments, but at least as far as companies making these commitments I’m not sure people are being cynical enough.

A 2050 commitment basically is a current CEO signing a check that someone probably 3 or 4 CEOs later is going to have to make good on. There is very little accountability for interim progress. Some companies write sustainability reports and while some of them are fairly legit – most of them are fantasy and garbage.

The second piece as others have identified is WTF is ‘net zero.’ If a company pumps out 100 zillion tons of crap and then turns around and buys corresponding credits they can say they are net zero but that 100% relies on the proverbial “someone else” to do something that generates credits. Its like saying I’m a drunk but at least I recycle my empties.

Right now there is nothing forcing companies to buy credits of any kind in most jurisdictions, if there was some tax or cap structure (as JQ regularly comments upon) that would bring companies to making actual decisions now rather than kicking the can down the road to the 2050 generation of CEOs who will be paying a fortune to buy scarce credits because companies failed to take action years earlier.

Maybe said shorter – 2050 net zero is a sham in the making, its a question if we call BS on it now or later. Unfortunately the media is so busy high-fiving all the progress that the forget to ask actual questions like – how?


engels 01.18.23 at 8:14 pm


Revealed: more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest provider are worthless, analysis shows

The forest carbon offsets approved by the world’s leading provider and used by Disney, Shell, Gucci and other big corporations are largely worthless and could make global heating worse, according to a new investigation.

The research into Verra, the world’s leading carbon standard for the rapidly growing $2bn (£1.6bn) voluntary offsets market, has found that, based on analysis of a significant percentage of the projects, more than 90% of their rainforest offset credits – among the most commonly used by companies – are likely to be “phantom credits” and do not represent genuine carbon reductions…


Zamfir 01.19.23 at 4:23 pm

A Trader Joe, I would agree with you if we were only talking about individual companies. At the level of countries or continents, there is far less potential for such shell games. Gucci or Disney can perhaps hide in certificate complexity, but not an entire energy system.

An example: the clearest fudge factor in the EU is solid biomass, especially wood pellets. It accounts for about 8% of total energy use, most of that gets counted as net-zero CO2 emissions, and some sizeable chunk of that is bogus accounting. Exactly how much, is subject of fierce debates.

Biomass got special ” zero emission” tax advantages, its use went up suspiciously fast in a few years, then people started to pay attention. It’s not fixed, but it is not a hidden trick anymore.

Suppose we get to 20250, and there is still some percents of energy use from bogus-zero biomass, some more percents from other debatable accounting tricks, but the remainder is genuine-zero (net or gross). That would be great. Much better than the current trajectory.


Trader Joe 01.19.23 at 8:58 pm

@14 Zamfir

A country is just the sum of its companies and its citizens. As in any regulation, if there is a way to game the system the system will be gamed.

Generically encouraging net zero 2050 without defining the rules of what net zero actually means and a mechanism to get there primarily encourages creative though not necessarily productive behavior.

To be sure – I hope you’re right, but counting on the collective everyone to do something pretty much invites a collective commons error and that’s where we are right now.


Quill 01.20.23 at 2:31 am

You are absolutely correct that Net Zero is technically meaningless. However, it provides a politically useful marker which produces pressure to take steps to reduce carbon emissions on a regular basis.


Zamfir 01.20.23 at 10:22 am

A country might be the sum of its parts, but the accounting is much easier on the aggregate level, leaving less space for fake but creidble reductions. This is doubly true at the level of a large country, or the EU.

Unlike nearly every company, a mid-sized country generates most of its GHG emissions internally. Most of it in easily observable forms, and mostly for the benefit of its own citizens. There are nowhere enough fake-but-credible offsets to cover that. And unlike most individual companies, a country has easily thousands of people with expertise who are flagging trickery.

If country cuts 90% of its current energy system emissions, it might perhaps be able to hide the remaining 10% in definitional complexity. How to account for embedded emissions in imports and exports, how to account for biofuels, bunker fuel for ships under foreign flags, that kind of thing. It’s not going to cover power plants, car fleets, domestic heating systems, steel plants. If those resemble the current situation, it’s not net-zero, and no amount of certificates is going to convince people of it.

Suppose “net zero ” actually means, we aim to cut 90% and hide the difficult remainer? That’s much better than the current trajectory. Our prioirty should be to get as many countries on something resembling that better trajectory


MFB 01.23.23 at 9:30 am

I find the use of the word “could” in the first couple of paragraphs troubling. We “could” reduce global temperature increase to 1,5 degrees, or to 2,5 degrees (I suspect the first is already impossible, actually) – but even in this abstract representation, there’s no “we will”. I don’t think this is a rhetorical slip; people concerned with global warming are so obsessed with not upsetting the people whom they think will save the planet (the oligarchs and their political catamites who have so far shown little sign of such desires) that they have become almost unbelievably mealy-mouthed. This is why people like Thunberg, who simply say what is obviously true, appear so strange and extreme. And why so many of the comments on this thread are effectively apologising for the failure of their heroes to accomplish anything or to pursue any technique or tactic which is not demonstrably unworkable.

It reminds me rather of an old essay by Gore Vidal, “Cue the Green God, Ted” in which he glumly predicted that the corrupt oligarchs would first co-opt the issue of global warming, then use it to impose a global dictatorship (that didn’t quite happen, mercifully, but it still could) and then comprehensively fail to do anything positive about the issue itself – and I suspect that Vidal is in this case one of the most lamentably true prophets around.


Omega Centauri 01.28.23 at 3:50 pm

This is likely too optimistic, but at least my state is trying hard to be a leader:

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