What makes a good net zero target?

Comment: More than a hundred countries have set or are considering net zero targets. Climate Action Tracker has ten tests to sort the green from the greenwash

An abandoned fuel pump in Florida, US (Pic: quite peculiar/Flickr)


The last two years have seen a wave of national net zero target announcements. A total of 131 countries have now adopted, announced or are considering net zero targets, covering about 73% of global emissions.

This has triggered an important discussion on how useful they are, how scientifically robust they are – and their real-world impact.

Well designed and ambitious net zero targets can play a key role in reducing global carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to net zero around 2050 and 2070, respectively, to keep to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C warming limit.

However, net zero targets can distract from the urgent need for deep emissions reductions. Specifically, governments may “hide” behind aspirational net zero targets to avoid setting ambitious 2030 targets and taking short-term climate action. Unless governments start acting now, their chances of achieving net zero will be slim.

There are many uncertainties in estimating the potential impact of net zero targets: underlying assumptions may not be clear, they may not be comprehensive, or their legal status and likelihood of being fully implemented uncertain. This underlines a clear need for a nuanced assessment of national net zero targets. There is a risk that poorly backed up net zero claims could render the term meaningless.

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The Climate Action Tracker has developed a method for evaluating government net zero targets: it is applicable only to net zero targets by national governments, not other subnational or non-state actors, especially corporations, whose whose different emissions boundaries and, in many cases, reliance on creative accounting methods to claim net zero, warrant special attention.

We have identified ten key elements to assess whether a net zero target’s scope, architecture, and transparency meet what we define as good practice.

  1. Target year: Governments should communicate their target year, or short period (such as a five-year interval), for achieving net zero.
  2. Emissions coverage: Net zero targets should cover all greenhouse gases, all sources, and all economic sectors
  3. International aviation and shipping: net zero targets should cover emissions from international aviation and international shipping.
  4. Reductions or removals outside of own borders: the most transparent and comprehensive net zero targets explicitly state that the country will reach net zero emissions within its own borders.
  5. Legal status: net zero targets should be enshrined in national law.
  6. Separate reduction and removal targets: including separate sub-targets for emission reductions and removals creates transparency and makes it easier to track progress.
  7. Review process: a legally binding, regular review and revision of the target, and progress against it.
  8. Carbon dioxide removal: transparent assumptions on the role of the land use, land-use change, and forestry (LuluCF) sector and separate assumptions of technical carbon dioxide removal (CDR) options provide clarity on how a country wants to achieve net zero. Removals cannot replace deep emission reductions, and should be used to balance emissions that cannot be rapidly abated and to realise net negative emissions after achieving net zero. Particular caution should be taken over the use of forest and other ecosystem-based removals because of their high uncertainties and risk of carbon re-release from increasingly adverse climatic conditions.
  9. Comprehensive planning: a comprehensive planning process and actionable short and medium-term measures to reach net zero increase the chances of a target’s successful implementation.
  10. Clarity on fairness of target: a government should explain why its target is a ‘fair’ contribution to the global goal of limiting warming to 1.5˚C. Developed countries in particular should explain how they will make up for any difference between what would be a fair contribution and what would be a realistic contribution, for example by supporting other countries in decarbonising their economies without claiming credits for use towards their own targets.

We will use these ten elements for those targets with enough information available to give countries an overall assessment of ‘acceptable’, ‘average’, or ‘poor’. Our ratings of net zero targets will roll out in the near future along with the CAT’s new rating methodology.

Frederic Hans and Silke Mooldijk are climate policy analysts with NewClimate Institute;  Claire Fyson is a climate policy analyst with Climate Analytics. Together, the two research organisations collaborate on the Climate Action Tracker project.

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