Why Net Zero Now?

James Murray
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Why Net Zero Now?

As BusinessGreen launches its Net Zero Now campaign, James Murray explains why more ambitious climate goals and strategies have never been more urgently needed

Climate change is complicated. The multitude of branching scenarios, feedback loops, and known unknowns that shape our understanding. The web of vested interests, competing priorities, and political priors that define our response. The cutting edge technologies, cultural biases, and unintended consequences that will shape our future. Sometimes responding to climate change feels like playing three dimensional chess. In a boxing ring. In the middle of a Test Match. 

But at the same time, climate change is simple. We have known for over 150 years that greenhouse gases have a warming effect on the atmosphere and we know humanity is releasing greenhouse gases in increasing quantities. We know from observed reality that global average temperatures are rising and that transforming the climate will have consequences. We can and do argue about the nature, extent, and pace of these consequences, but basic physics dictates that to bring an end to the warming effect we are imposing on the only habitable planet we know means at some point we must deliver, in the words of the Paris Agreement, "a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases".

In other words if we are to ever address escalating climate risks we need to build a net zero emission economy.

This stark reality - a reality that will define the 21st century - sparks a raft of questions. When do we need to deliver this carbon neutral global economy by? What happens if we don't succeed? What is the best way to ensure the end goal is achieved? And how do we muster support for the necessary action?

The goal of BusinessGreen's new Net Zero Now campaign is to address these questions, to explore what it will take to avert climate catastrophe, and investigate how leading businesses and countries are already responding to the challenge. In so doing, we hope the case will be made for building a net zero economy. And building it now.

Why now? Because the answer to the first question - when do we need to deliver net zero by - is simply, with the upmost urgency. The precise date by which a global net zero emission economy is required if we are to minimise the risks of crisis-sparking climate change is determined by a raft of variables. How sensitive is the climate to warming forces? At what point will runaway feedback loops be triggered? You've no doubt heard about these tipping points - the temperature induced die off of tropical rainforests, the release of permafrost methane, the loss of reflective sea ice. If you are anything like me, their terrifying nature means you try hard not to think about them. But when will these triggers be pulled? How much warming can we reasonably adapt to? Most of all, given the inherent uncertainties involved in predicting the future, how much risk are we willing to take on? Do we feel lucky?

The world's finest science academies have been wrestling with these questions for decades and later this year they will publish yet another report that details their best understanding. What we already know and what leaked drafts of the report tell us is that while 1.5C of warming above pre-industrial levels will have significant, economy-shaping impacts, it is a whole lot safer than 2C of warming, which in turn is orders of magnitude safer than the 3-4C of warming we are currently at risk of unleashing this century. Beyond that all bets are off. The risks of rolling, interlocking, disaster-sparking, migration-inducing climate crises - crises that would turn the recent moral abhorrence on the US border look into a prelude to something much worse - become too considerable to countenance. 

Again, there are myriad variables to consider, but the best guess is that if we are to keep warming safely below 1.5C, or at least in the 1.5C to 2C range, then the global economy needs to stop increasing the concentration of greenhouses in the atmosphere, to achieve net zero, sometime between 2060 and 2070, before then steadily pulling greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. For reasons of basic equity and the practical deployment of net zero infrastructure, industrialised nations ideally need to deliver net zero emissions - to demonstrate that it is both possible and desirable - before 2050, and preferably as soon as possible.

Why net zero now? Because global greenhouse gas emissions are rising once again. Because if we are to deliver such a fundamental transformation of the global economy within these timeframes we need to orchestrate a step change in our approach to decarbonisation with immediate effect? Because if the stakes are the climate that has nurtured human civilisation for millennia we should avoid the reckless gamble that President Trump and his allies advocate and err on the side of caution. Because if we had responded as we should have done when the scale of the climate risks first started to materialise in the 1970s and 1980s there is a not insignificant chance we could have built something approaching a net zero emission economy by now.

The question then is not whether we should aspire to a net zero emission economy, but how do we deliver it? It is a question every government on the planet, bar one, is asking given they have all signed up to a Paris Agreement that commits to the development of such an economy during the second half of this century.

Again, the answer is both simple and complicated. We need to drastically accelerate the deployment of the cost effective low carbon technologies we know work, such as energy efficiency measures, zero emission vehicles, and renewables; accelerate the development of the higher cost, earlier stage technologies that are likely to be critical to deep decarbonisation, such as green heat, smart grid, hydrogen, sustainable agriculture, and CCS technologies; and launch an unprecedented R&D effort to deliver the next generation technologies that could make a net zero economy possible, such as small modular reactors, low carbon aviation, and negative emissions technologies and techniques.

Faced with such a sweeping and rapid economic and industrial transformation there is a growing consensus in sustainability circles that setting an unequivocal net zero emission target is one of the best ways to help focus minds and mobilise investment in support of the task in hand.

Sweden, New Zealand, and Costa Rica have already set net zero emission goals, while the UK and EU are both committed to investigating their own targets. Meanwhile, nine companies have signed up to the Net Zero by 2050 campaign orchestrated by green business NGO The B Team, including Unilever, Kering, Salesforce, Virgin, and Tiffany. Other household names such as Tesco and Carlsberg have also unveiled long term net zero emission targets, while many others are quietly investigating whether to set their own targets. 

Indeed, there is sizeable pipeline of companies that will almost certainly gravitate towards setting net zero emission targets in the coming years. Over 420 companies have now either set or are committed to setting science-based emissions targets that are independently verified as being in line with the Paris Agreement. In the long term, both the Paris Agreement and scientifically advised emissions trajectories require net zero emissions. These companies and many others will either have to perform reputation shredding u-turns or will inevitably end up pursuing net zero emission targets.

At the same time, the Paris Agreement's requirement for country's to revisit their national climate action plans every five years places them on a similar path. Those governments that already have relatively ambitious emissions reduction targets for 80 per cent emissions cuts by 2050 have nowhere else to go but adopt net zero goals - hence the UK and EU's current moves to investigate such a target.

The business and economic case for setting bold net zero emission targets is compelling. As green business-focused NGOs such as the Climate Group and the We Mean Business coalition are fond of saying, a net zero goal adheres to the principle of 'zeros and 100s' - targets that require organisations to deliver zero emissions or 100 per cent renewables, for example, have a refreshing simplicity and full spectrum reach. They are easy to communicate and they ensure everyone in an organisation is included. No one is left labouring under the misapprehension that 'we might be trying to cut emissions 90 per cent, but I work in the part of the business where that final 10 per cent of emissions will be left'.

This all-encompassing approach should also focus minds on the need for R&D efforts to address the so-called 'hard to reach' emissions and strengthen the investor-led argument that high carbon assets risk becoming stranded in a decarbonising world.

However, while interest in net zero emissions is growing, support for the approach is not universal, even among those who back the Paris Agreement and want to see more ambitious climate action. Some analysts, including some Whitehall insiders, fear net zero goals risk distracting from the short term measures urgently needed to meet emissions targets for 2030 that we are currently on track to miss. Others question the wisdom of setting a target when we have little idea about the cost of meeting it or even if it can be done. And then there are the perennial concerns about international competitiveness and how any one country or company's net zero emission target will fit into a global effort to decarbonise still characterised by free-riders and incumbent emitters.

All of these arguments are set to become more vocal, especially once those politicians and media outlets committed to opposing any and all climate action recognise that net zero targets are under serious consideration by business and political leaders alike.

The arguments against net zero goals are worth considering, but they are more a reminder that targets need to be backed by credible strategies than a compelling reason not to set long term emission goals. Governments and businesses need to be able to plan for both the long term and act in the short term, and in reality long and short term action should be mutually reinforcing. As the Paris Agreement has shown a truly global response to climate change will only materialise if some countries are prepared to lead and demonstrate that deep decarbonisation is possible. Moreover, net zero strategies have the potential to reinvigorate the carbon offset market and stimulate new finance flows between emitting industries and initiatives that serve to protect and expand carbon sinks.

Most of all though, whether you agree that net zero targets are helpful or not, it is important to recognise this is one of those situations where, as Margaret Thatcher used to say, there is no alternative. To avert potentially disastrous climate risks net zero emissions needs to be achieved within the lifetimes of billions of people alive today. A target is already included in the Paris Agreement, which every country in the world is currently a signatory to. Why not be honest about what the goal is and why it matters.

As Jeff Seabright, chief sustainability officer at Unilever told BusinessGreen, the reason the multinational set a net zero target is very simple. "The climate change science is incontrovertible, and the projections are alarming," he says. "Leading climate scientists tell us that to have a chance of keeping average global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius and stave off the worst effects of climate change, we all need to step up our ambition and take concerted action to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050. The moral case is already clear.  Unless we tackle climate change, 100 million additional people will be pushed back into poverty. Climate change already costs the global economy $5.3tr a year. Inaction could see global losses soar to $24tr - that's 17 per cent of the world's assets. So, not taking action presents an unacceptable risk not only to our business and our supply chains, but to future generations."

The aim of BusinessGreen's Net Zero Now campaign and today's manifesto is to make the case for net zero strategies and explore how they can be developed and enacted. There may be plenty of questions still to be addressed relating to how we can build a net zero economy, but they will not be answered if they are not asked. It may be unclear as to how net zero emission infrastructure can be delivered and uncertain as to how much it will cost, but that is not a good enough reason for ducking this debate. Over the coming months we will talk to the leading businesses embracing net zero strategies, track the international push to implement net zero targets, and explore how these ambitious goals can be reached.

The use of historical precedents when discussing the response to climate change is not always helpful. We need something akin to a war effort, suffrage, civil rights, the industrial revolution, and the moonshot all rolled into one. But there is an important lesson for the net zero emission trend contained in that final shining example of human endeavour.

When President Kennedy announced in 1962 that the US would strive to put a man on the moon it was not clear whether it could be done or what it would cost, but in establishing the mission the resources were mobilised and the innovation unleashed that would result in that "one small step for man".

The announcement is always remembered for Kennedy's characteristically stirring rhetoric. "We choose to go to the Moon," he said. "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win."

But there was another line from Kennedy's speech that ought to be more widely known: "[The moon's] conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again." Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the global effort to build a net zero emission economy should be seen in the same light?

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