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To achieve net-zero, let’s agree on one definition of success

Definition concept art

Reaching the 2015 Paris Agreement goals requires bold action from all sectors and levels of our society. But any chief sustainability officer will fall short of their responsibility if they simply cite net-zero as a strategic goal.

High ambition on its own may sound good. But without describing the emissions their organization is responsible for and the end-state they consider successful, an ambitious claim may be disingenuous. At the other extreme, a cautious, crystal-clear set of climate goals is too incremental in this time of emergency.

So how to combine the necessary level of ambition with appropriate clarity to inspire potent action? We suggest leaders spell out an organizational definition of net-zero to enable the Paris Agreement’s aim of net-zero global emissions by mid-century.

How should a software company or a city mayor think about its duty to reduce emissions and remove them from the atmosphere? The concept of "net-zero carbon emissions" may feel clear enough at a global scale: Carbon output at a level in balance with natural and engineered means of absorption. However, at the scale of countries, cities, institutions and companies, defining net-zero emissions is tricky.

Why focus on the responsibilities of organizations and communities? After all, it is the world that needs to achieve net-zero emissions.

If we are to maximize the probability of a just transition to a sustainable society, all actors should explain what they mean by net-zero before they describe their intended timeline and actions for achieving it.

In that sense, no single organization’s emissions matter much. But if entities think their emissions do not matter, we are all in trouble. To reach and then surpass net-zero emissions globally, most entities need to be on a reduction and removal path that pulls down the trajectory of global emissions. It is a bit like voting: A single vote almost never sways an election; but the duty and mass activity of voting are vital to the health of a democracy. In this sense, each of our emissions is, in fact, important. 

Net-zero concept art

If climate actions were as easy to count as votes, this would be easy. Here we argue for a consistent definition of "net-zero" that enables organizations, companies, cities and countries to set transparent targets and track their progress.

If we are to maximize the probability of a just transition to a sustainable society, all actors should explain what they mean by net-zero before they describe their intended timeline and actions for achieving it.

In that spirit, we suggest four measurable criteria that, when applied together, elevate an undertaking of net-zero (lower case indicating general use of the term) to be worthy of capitalizing to “Net-Zero.”

In this refreshed, robust definition, a strategy for “Net-Zero” greenhouse gas emissions can earn its capital letters if it is: Fully-scoped, Science-based, Paris Agreement-compliant and Cumulative. Each descriptive term imparts an important dimension of clarity, while reinforcing the ambition. Net-Zero can be a powerful goal at the sub-global level if entities embrace a concept that is:

  1. Fully-scoped: The goal articulates the entity’s scope of responsibility. This should include all greenhouse gas emissions from Scope 1 (owned and controlled sources); Scope 2 (indirect and purchased sources); and Scope 3 (value chain emissions — both upstream and downstream) that the entity has the ability to influence.
  2. Science-based: It incorporates an absolute target for the entity’s own emissions reductions — assuming bold, appropriate responsibility for emissions reductions consistent with the Paris Agreement and at least proportional to its contribution to climate change.
  3. Paris Agreement-compliant: The entity specifies if and to what extent carbon credits and external investments in carbon reduction and removal factor into its strategy. Any offsetting investments should be linked to the global carbon budget as defined in the Paris Agreement.
  4. Cumulative: The target acknowledges the entity’s historical emissions of greenhouse gases, not just their current level. By analogy, if a customer ate at their favorite restaurant for years without paying, then started paying as they went, the establishment would reasonably expect the customer to settle their old tab at some point. Cumulative responsibility puts rational boundaries around a historical debt.

Our hope is that ambitious, clear targets help entities not only achieve “Net-Zero” emissions but progress beyond that marker to a restorative role in society — ideally well before 2050.

Together, it is possible to achieve “Net-Zero” emissions across the globe. To do that, it is crucial to rally around one definition of success. This definition should include bold and clear concepts of scope; assume proportional responsibility of definite, ambitious reductions trajectories; include only Paris Agreement-compliant carbon credits or investments; and assume historic responsibility

When clearly defined, “Net-Zero” will be an increasingly powerful conceptual tool to focus the world’s response on the climate crisis.

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