Net zero targets gain substantial global support
In a nutshell
- Net zero targets encompass most greenhouse gas emissions. If implemented, they would put the Paris Agreement goals within striking distance. Net zero targets gained support in the past year. Over 80% of the countries analysed perceive net zero targets as helpful tools for realising emissions reductions. There are, however, some concerns surrounding adoption of these targets.
- These concerns are often centred on lack of clarity about short-term implementation, feasibility, and over-reliance on carbon dioxide removal and/or offsets.
- Despite these concerns, in the countries analysed, support outweighs opposition regarding net zero targets. In several cases, the conversation has shifted from whether it is relevant to adopt such targets to how they can be implemented.
- To seize the opportunity presented by the wave of net zero targets, policy makers must carefully consider the pitfalls and engage with relevant stakeholders to ensure that real emissions reductions are the outcome.
Over the past year, a global wave of national net zero targets was set into motion. Recent targets establish the year when countries expect to balance out their anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and removals. If fully implemented, the targets could put the Paris Agreement goals within reach and lower the best estimates of global temperature to between 2.0°C and 2.4°C warming by 2100.
Well-designed and ambitious net zero targets may be a step in the right direction, but they need to be continually backed by short-term commitments and policies to demonstrate real improvement. Meaningful targets detail their scope, architecture, and transparency, such as by elaborating on the implementation plans’ specifics for achieving net zero emissions.
Net zero targets can, however, be counterproductive regarding meaningful climate action; they can be used to delay short- and medium-term actions, shifting action further into an uncertain future. Other ambitious targets, such as short-term, enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) or other long-term deep emissions reductions targets, may be more appropriate in specific contexts. An unnecessary focus on net zero may shift attention away from other important strategies, especially because of these targets’ implicit reliance on carbon dioxide removal or offset.
As of October 2021, a total of 59 countries had adopted net zero targets. These countries account for about 63% of global emissions.
We asked CCPI policy expert network contributors about their perspectives on net zero targets. We sought to understand whether these targets are considered helpful and if there is support for their adoption. The 205 responses we received concern 60 of the 61 countries and regions covered in the CCPI. Each respondent – a team, organisation, or individual supporting climate policy analysis and adoption – provided insights about their own country.
Net zero targets have gained considerable support in the countries analysed (Figure 1) We compared country responses containing information about perceived support and opposition concerning net zero targets (see Methodology). Respondents in 60% of the countries perceived greater support than opposition in their context.
The dynamics explaining cross-country variations are complex. Stakeholder groups have distinct views on adopting and subsequently implementing the net zero targets. A transition that requires deep emissions reductions will face strong domestic opposition from affected fossil exploration groups in countries such as Russia. Other countries with high emissions per capita, such as the United States and Canada, also show considerable opposition. In these countries, however, overall support for the targets is also higher.
Support for the targets can be explained by their role in driving higher ambitions. Despite the targets’ long-term nature, they have informed more ambitious NDC updates for several large-scale emitters, including the European Union (EU), United States, and United Kingdom. In Germany, the long-term prospect of reducing emissions to net zero contributed to a court order ruling to increase the nation’s 2030 target. In most of the countries analysed (85%), net zero targets are considered helpful tools for realising emissions reductions (Figure 2).
Governments in several countries have already inserted net zero targets in legislation. The EU, for example, legislated its net zero target in 2021 as part of its Climate Law. The target sets a goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2050. As part of the European Green Deal, the EU has prepared a comprehensive policy package that is expected to lead it towards its objectives. Some EU member states have also legislated individual net zero targets. Denmark’s parliament, for example, almost unanimously adopted a target in 2020. South Korea, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand have all already formalised their net zero commitments.
Over the past year, general support for net zero targets has increased in the countries analysed. Respondents in 73% of the countries surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that support for the targets has grown. Though not all countries covered in the CCPI have adopted a net zero target, support for the targets’ adoption is present in mostcountries surveyed. In many countries, the discussion has shifted from whether it is relevant to adopt a net zero target to how such a target can be implemented.
The opposition to net zero targets is not only driven by actors that oppose a low-carbon transition. In India, for example, general concerns about net zero targets are exacerbated by the contrast with current mitigation efforts in the country. India’s climate mitigation efforts have been primarily supported by a narrative centred on co-benefits and development, rather than long-term, climate-driven planning. This shift could undermine the national momentum built over the previous decades. CCPI contributors reported that opposition to net zero exists in nearly half of the countries surveyed (47%).
Respondents also emphasised that the focus on net zero may shift the focus to long-term target setting instead of short-term policy adoption. They indicated that the targets are sometimes built on overly optimistic assumptions and are not grounded in realistic options for decarbonising all economic sectors, especially in countries highly dependent on hard-to-abate sectors, such as the agriculture sector in Argentina. Overreliance on emissions sinks and offsets was mentioned as an additional point of strong concern. In Norway, the fossil fuel exploration sector casts doubt on the country’s net zero targets, as new oil and gas fields are expected to remain active beyond 2050.
The international momentum towards net zero represents an important aspect of the global effort to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals. To seize this opportunity, policy makers should carefully consider the pitfalls in setting net zero targets, and they should engage with relevant stakeholders to ensure the targets lead to real emissions reductions over time.
Our method was based on a survey of national experts, most of whom are part of the Climate Action Network or scholars working in climate-related fields. The survey took place in September–October 2021.
Experts may have diverging perspectives on the level of adoption of a target and on perceived support or opposition regarding net zero targets. We accounted for the degree of agreement between experts by averaging the answers for each country and question. Contradicting answers from two experts for the same answer and country offset one another. The country results tend to the answer of the majority. The results are based on averaged results per country, not on averaged responses across all respondents.
The definitions of support and opposition are broad and not restricted to specific stakeholder groups. Distinct groups may have varying perspectives on net zero targets. Respondents were asked to indicate their levels of agreement with the following statements:
- Distinct stakeholder groups in my country oppose the adoption of a net-zero target
- Distinct stakeholder groups in my country support the adoption of a net-zero target
The level indicates the overall perception of the balance between these opposing ideas within the country.
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