Globalfields insight

How do we design appropriate net-zero targets?

October 2022
Achieving national net-zero emissions targets is an essential part of becoming a green economy

Niloufar Javadi-Abhari

The state of climate actions pre-COP27

In the wake of the Glasgow Climate Pact and in preparation for COP27 in Egypt, many countries are in the process of updating their emissions targets. This is urgent, as it is clear that current targets are insufficient to meet even the less ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement. Even achieving the currently announced 2030 targets will result in a 2.4°C warming by the end of the century while any serious attempts towards limiting warming to 1.5°C require emissions to be halved by 2030. Yet, the recently updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) will only reduce emissions by 15-17%. While countries have begun to close the emissions gap, more ambitious targets, policies and actions on the ground to turn these into reality are needed urgently. National net zero targets are a useful framework to operate NDC updates within.

The state of net-zero targets

Since the ratification of the Paris Agreement, the number of national net-zero targets has been increasing. Currently, 19 countries have net-zero targets enshrined into law, including the UK, the EU, and Japan. 53 countries have net-zero targets within a policy document, including the US and Saudi Arabia. 67 countries have net-zero targets under discussion, including Ethiopia and Pakistan. 57 countries do not have a net-zero target, including Egypt (the COP-27 host) and Mexico. Existing net-zero targets (including those under consideration) cover close to 90% of all global emissions.

Tracking net-zero targets

While the increasing adoption of net-zero targets is a positive step, not all net-zero targets are of equal quality. The Climate Action Tracker’s (CAT) evaluation of net-zero targets only rates 8% of all targets as acceptable. CAT conducts independent analysis of governmental climate actions and measures them against the targets of the Paris Agreement, which aim to maintain global warming to “well below 2°C” and “pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C”.

As a part of Climate Week NYC 2022, Climate Action Tracker held an online event, where the organisations’ researchers and analysts discussed the qualities of an adequate national net-zero emissions target and how the targets of various countries compare.

It is noteworthy that the majority of G7 and G20 countries have an inadequate net-zero target according to CAT’s rating. This explains why current projections see global warming increasing to 2.4C by the end of the century.

What makes a good net zero target?

The CAT assessment methodology consists of three components: a) scope (what do targets cover?); b) architecture (how are targets implemented?) and c) transparency. Within these components, ten key elements are identified as key indicators that inform adequate net-zero target design.

For example, three of these elements are: i) emission coverage, ii) review process, and iii) comprehensive planning. Each element has a clearly defined good practice. Good practice emission coverage is characterised by setting targets which cover all greenhouse gas emissions (not just carbon dioxide) in all sectors in a transparent manner. An adequate review process is one which is legally binding and allows readjusting net-zero targets at regular intervals. A comprehensive plan for achieving national net-zero targets must include pathway analyses and identification of sector-specific targets and policies.

The performance of countries against these indicators in each category will gain them a target rating of acceptable, average or poor. To date, 16% of countries analysed lack sufficient information for proper evaluation.

On the road to net-zero (photo by Marta Simonetti)

Expectations ahead of COP27

Current targets, both long-term and short-term, are not nearly sufficient for meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Addressing insufficient action and ambition in national target setting should be a central focus in COP27.

What about the private sector?

While COP26 saw a considerable increase in corporate net-zero pledges, which may be considered in setting national targets, these will not be a replacement for governmental action. Many corporate net-zero pledges rely heavily on carbon offsetting, often with carbon credits of dubious quality, which are not yet fully regulated and instead of promoting improvements have the potential to impair the accuracy of national emissions accounting. Currently therefore, corporate pledges are likely to be limited in real scope and impact. Regulation would be needed to change that. Such regulation should start by clearly stating that corporate net-zero targets should be achieved via decarbonisation efforts, and only carbon offsetting with high-quality offsets could have a role to play in meeting targets within hard-to-abate sectors.

Achieving national net-zero emissions targets is an essential part of a green economy. As a global expert in climate governance, NDC and green finance and sustainable development, Globalfields aims to understand the evolving characteristics of effective net-zero target setting in order to provide exemplary services to its clients, based on sound scientific analysis and 15 years of first-hand work in climate finance.

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