By the end of 2021, over 80 countries — representing almost 75% of global emissions — announced commitments to achieve net-zero emissions. Setting a net-zero target is a necessary step to cut global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 to keep the world’s temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). But target-setting alone is not enough. Net-zero targets need to be tied to real policymaking today.

So, if 2021 was the year of net-zero commitments, 2022 should be the year of action towards achieving such goals. Here are six key steps countries can take to demonstrate their net-zero targets mean action now.

1. Define Net-Zero

If it isn’t done when the net-zero target is set, it is important that countries clearly define the scope of their commitment, including the year they intend to reach net-zero, the GHGs and sectors they intend to cover under their target, and the extent to which they intend to rely on international offset purchases. As the strength and legitimacy of a net-zero target depends on these parameters — with the most ambitious targets aiming for earlier in this century, covering all gases and sectors and limiting reliance on offsets — countries should clearly communicate these choices.

The United Kingdom has set a strong example, explicitly committing to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 from all GHGs and in all sectors (including international shipping and aviation, which fall outside the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change guidelines for national GHG inventories), as well as to avoid relying too heavily on international offsets to meet their target. Other countries, including major emitters like China, Canada, India, Japan and Brazil, have communicated a net-zero target but haven’t yet provided full details on the scope of their ambition. As an immediate next step, countries that have not communicated this information to the international community should do so.

2. Model Pathways to Achieve Net-Zero

With a clearly defined net-zero target in place, a country must next ground it with a comprehensive trajectory that demonstrates how decarbonization can be achieved. Economy-wide modeling can be used to chart emission reduction pathways for each sector, while these sector-specific pathways, in turn, can highlight key decision points and priority actions in the near-term to avoid locking in future emissions.

More than 20 countries, including Costa Rica, Nepal and the United States, have published analyses of mitigation opportunities and potential pathways to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Such exploratory models and pathways can help countries identify which sectors and economic activities must transition when, understand where there is technological uncertainty and the need for further research and investment, and send clear signals about the expected role of emissions offsets or carbon removal technologies. Critically, national governments should distinguish targets for reductions and targets for removals, prioritizing emissions reductions where possible.

6 Steps of Action

3. Set Near-Term and Sectoral Goals and Milestones

While reaching net-zero emissions will ultimately require an economy-wide transformation, implementation will happen across multiple distinct policy areas. Countries can begin to assemble the puzzle pieces by setting specific interim and sectoral goals and targets, many of which may be aimed for before mid-century.

For example, a commitment to produce 100% renewable-generated power within the decade — a target that Fiji, for instance, has set to help meet its 2050 net-zero target — will alone contribute to enormous emissions reductions, as well as support long-term decarbonization when combined with electrification of end uses including buildings and transport. Similarly, Iceland aims to ban new registration of petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030, and the government of Sweden has set a 2030 target to reduce emissions from domestic transport (excluding domestic aviation) by at least 70% compared with 2010.

Setting these interim targets across all sectors of the economy — from improving energy efficiency, to reducing industrial emissions and deforestation, and more — can help countries visualize how their net-zero ambitions will ultimately be realized. Moreover, these targets can provide a basis to track progress toward the net-zero target, thereby promoting accountability.

Once identified, a country should include these interim/sectoral goals and milestones into its nationally determined contribution (NDC), or near-term plan under the Paris Agreement. In so doing, a country ensures that these targets are not far-away aspirations to be achieved at some point much later in the future; rather, they are goalposts that should drive investments and policy now.

4. Engage Stakeholders for Equitable and Just Transitions

Inevitably, these critical transformations will have tangible impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods.  To ensure decarbonization benefits all of society, it’s crucial that negatively affected communities are part of the solution and that impacts are equitably distributed. A notable concern many countries have been grappling with is the challenge of transitioning away from coal, which means coal-fired power plants and coal mines will inevitably shut down. Other challenges include reskilling the labor force for new fields; shifting locations of economic opportunity; and support for workers in the informal economy.

Bringing the individuals and communities affected into the conversations critical to address these and other challenges can occur during all these steps and take many forms.

Take the example of South Africa’s Presidential Climate Commission towards a Just Transition — a multi-stakeholder advisory body established to help shape the country’s pathway to a low-carbon climate-resilient economy and society. The country’s leadership to ensure equitable decarbonization is globally recognized and has attracted partnerships from across the world. Indeed, South Africa’s goal to transition away from coal while maintaining opportunities for affected workers will be supported by the International Just Energy Transition Partnership, involving France, Germany, the U.K., the U.S. and the European Union, which will mobilize an initial commitment of $8.5 billion in international finance.

Other countries have developed more localized strategies, building on advice from stakeholders. For example, prior to formally adopting a net-zero target, the government of Spain engaged unions and focus groups from the general public in the development of a Just Transition Strategy. This strategy operationalizes the development of regional agreements to directly support continued economic activity and sustain employment during the phase-out of coal.

Several other countries with net-zero targets — including Canada and Germany — regional governments such as Scotland, and several states in the U.S. are also actively working with impacted stakeholders through advisory panels, collaborative public-private local investment schemes, and job reskilling programs, among other measures. This will help ensure communities are engaged in the transition and ultimately able to take advantage of opportunities and benefits that come along with it. These governments also recognize that stakeholder engagement early in their planning processes facilitates greater buy-in from constituencies and strengthens the feasibility of implementation.

5. Implement Near-Term Plans and Policies Aligned with Net-Zero

Net-zero targets will not implement themselves, and it's important to ensure near-term plans and policies contribute to meeting the ultimate objective of curbing GHG emissions. Several governments are taking concrete steps to implement near-term economic and fiscal policy aligned with net-zero targets, setting examples from which others can learn.

First, countries can consider ways to manage the transition over shorter time periods. The U.K. was the first country to set legally binding carbon budgets which restrict the total amount of GHGs that can be emitted during specific cycles. Once in place, a binding carbon budget with independent monitoring of progress is a critical tool to help drive economic decision-making. Many other countries — including France, New Zealand and Nigeria — have since followed suit.

Second, countries may find it useful to gather independent expert advice to guide near-term implementation aligned with net-zero targets. To this end, many countries have established independent climate change advisory bodies, like the U.K.’s Climate Change Committee, the Chilean Scientific Committee on Climate Change and others, to provide policy advice on critical and politically sensitive topics so governments are better able to adopt policies that help achieve net-zero emissions. Advisory councils can also offer support when potential actions face political hurdles.

Finally, all of the above must be enabled by supportive policy and financing mechanisms. After setting a net-zero target and identifying the sectoral transformations that must occur to reach it, governments at the national and sub-national scale need to begin establishing the tools that they’ll use to drive change. Examples of policy and financing mechanisms that may help countries to work toward their sectoral and economy-wide targets include, but are not limited to:

  • Emissions taxes or emissions trading schemes
  • Renewable portfolio standards/purchasing mandates
  • Subsidies for green energy and restoration projects
  • Removal of subsidies for fossil fuels/bans on fossil fuel production reform of agricultural subsidies
  • Government-funded loan raising and equity financing

Carbon pricing, whether through emissions taxes or trading schemes, is a particularly frequently used tool for incentivizing emissions reductions across multiple sectors. To date, more than 40 countries with net-zero targets — many of which are major emitters — are covered by or intend to establish domestic or regional (e.g., the EU ETS) carbon pricing mechanisms. Other countries have pursued different mechanisms more prominently. Costa Rica, for example, has placed a national moratorium on oil exploration and exploitation until 2050, supporting the country in achieving a 95% renewable electricity mix. China, in addition to launching the world’s largest carbon pricing mechanism this year, has also been implementing substantial renewable energy purchasing mandates for more than a decade.

6. Support the Global Effort to Shift to Net-Zero and a Sustainable Future

It isn’t enough to focus on reducing domestic emissions if the efforts simply shift negative impacts to other countries, for example by continuing to invest in fossil fuel extraction in other countries, while phasing out domestic fossil fuel use. All foreign investment and development aid should also reflect global ambitions to reach net-zero emissions, with countries fully aligning financial flows with low-emission, climate-resilient development pathways including net-zero emissions.

Relatedly, governments should also be mindful of the potential negative impacts of transformative policy shifts and screen them for potential, inadvertent impacts, domestically or in other countries — such as transboundary water resource management for renewable energy generation or displacement of deforestation to other regions. It’s critical to adopt smart climate policy that doesn’t trade the mitigation of GHG emissions and avoidance of future climate impacts for other problems.

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Preparing for Work to Begin

While setting an ambitious net-zero target is a great first step, it merely sets the stage for the real work to begin. Once the target has been firmly put in place, it’s imperative for countries to undertake immediate, tangible and practical actions to fast-track implementation and drive the transformational change that is essential for a mid-century net-zero world.