The latest science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018) suggests that to meet the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals, the world will need to reach net-zero GHG emissions early in the second half of the next century. At the global level, achieving net-zero emissions means balancing anthropogenic (human-induced) emissions and removals of GHGs in a given period. In practice, achieving net-zero emissions means reducing anthropogenic emissions – like those from fossil-fueled emissions – as close to zero as possible while ramping up carbon removal to balance out any remaining emissions. These solutions could include restoring forests or direct air capture and storage technology.
As of July 2020, 19 countries and the European Union have adopted net-zero targets, and more than 100 others are considering doing so. This paper is a resource for countries that are designing and communicating net-zero targets. It summarizes how countries have designed net-zero targets to date and discusses the pros and cons of different design choices. It recommends options for designing net-zero targets and communicating with domestic and international constituencies in accordance with the most recent climate science and pathways to limit average global temperature rise to below 2°C (3.6°F)—and, ideally, 1.5°C (2.7°F).
Decision-makers face several choices when designing net-zero targets. This paper argues that to maximize the contribution of net-zero targets to drive decarbonization in line with climate science, countries should consider the following recommendations.
Achieving net-zero emissions will require fundamental shifts in how society operates. While there are significant opportunities associated with a zero-carbon future, there will be winners, losers, and trade-offs along the way to achieving this vision. Robust stakeholder processes can play a critical role in surfacing and managing trade-offs, promoting societal buy-in, and helping to ensure a just transition. Participation can facilitate more effective, inclusive decision-making and ultimately greater support for climate action. Importantly, participatory processes help translate net-zero targets into other decision-making processes, guiding the design of near- and midterm targets, policies and measures, and investments to support necessary transitions. Securing high-level political support and engaging relevant ministries, parliaments, experts, and the public can also enhance a net-zero target’s prospects for withstanding future government changes. Independent expert bodies can help provide accountability and review design and implementation choices. Governments should also consider the most effective legal status of the target. Depending on the national context, a law or other binding policy may be the best instrument to send long-term policy signals and drive changes in near-term decision-making. Legal commitment will help ensure that net-zero targets are not just aspirational visions that fail to have any bearing on today’s decisions; rather, these targets will become transformative instruments that drive action towards realizing the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Net-zero targets should be comprehensive. They should cover all GHGs and all sectors.
Governments should establish specific time frames for achieving targets. The specific year or multiyear time frame should be as early as feasible and should take account of global scenarios compatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, equity principles, and pathways and options for emissions and removals.
Countries with the highest emissions and greatest responsibility and capability should adopt the most ambitious target time frames. Major emitters should adopt a time frame that is at least as early as the global time frame to achieve the Paris Agreement goals, and earlier still if they have high historical and per capita emissions. Countries with high capacity for GHG emissions reduction and carbon removal should supplement net-zero targets with targets and plans to achieve net-negative emissions after achieving net-zero emissions.
Separate targets should be set for GHG emissions reductions and net-zero or net-negative emissions. Distinct targets provide a clear road map for both decarbonization, scaling carbon removals, and achieving net-zero or net-negative emissions.
Governments should prioritize reducing GHG emissions and enhancing GHG removals within the country’s territory rather than relying on international transfers of GHG mitigation to achieve net-zero targets. If international transfers of GHG mitigation are used to meet the target, countries should ensure that only surplus mitigation from other countries is transferred and should consider limiting the portion of the net-zero target that may be met through international GHG mitigation, as much as is feasible.
Countries should transparently communicate their net-zero targets. They should clearly provide information on the parameters of the net-zero target, including the GHG and sector coverage, the time frame, decarbonization targets, and the use of international transfers and any limits. Countries may also consider communicating supplemental information in order to strengthen the transparency of their targets.
Countries should ensure that net-zero targets inform near- and midterm climate action, including targets and policies, including NDCs, development plans, policies, investments, and long-term low-emissions development strategies to support just transitions.
To limit warming to well below 1.5°C (2.7°F), global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be slashed in half during the next decade and reach net zero early in the second half of the century.
Given this need, several countries have adopted netzero emissions targets, and many more have net-zero
targets under consideration.
Achieving net-zero targets is both a massive challenge—as countries will need to transform their economies—and an opportunity to advance development and sustainable economic growth while
avoiding the worst climate change impacts.
This paper aims to support countries in designing and communicating their net-zero targets to ensure they fully contribute to the achievement of the Paris Agreement’s goals.
Net-zero targets must also inform the design of nearand midterm targets and policies, including nationally determined contributions (NDCs), development plans, policies, investments, and long-term low-emissions development strategies to support just transitions.