The net zero norm

James S Murray

It is easy to be cynical about targets - but we shouldn't doubt the value of publicly-stated intentions

It is easy to be cynical about targets. Anyone who has ever confidently announced their New Year's Resolution only to break it by January 12th knows it is much easier to have an admirable intention than it is to deliver on it. But it is also important to understand what precisely is being said through such cynicism, what implications flow from a distrust in aspirational targets.

The power of the Paris Agreement was in the signal that it sent to markets and investors around the world that governments were committed to building net zero emission economies by mid-century. It meant that anyone continuing to bet on a high carbon future was tacitly accusing governments of either being incapable of delivering on their stated goal or engaged in a global conspiracy to deceive the public about their true intentions.

If you refuse to accept someone will meet their stated targets you are implying they are either a failure or a liar. Such an implication may prove to be justified, but there is no point looking to dilute the severity of the charge.

The seriousness of the criticism contained in continued investments in high carbon infrastructure becomes ever more apparent the more governments, businesses, and other organisations commit to delivering net zero emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

Yesterday's opening of New York Climate Week underscored how the pursuit of net zero emissions has become one of the fastest and widest business trends in decades. In the nine months since the start of the year - months that have been dominated by the worst economic and public health crisis in a century - the number of organisations setting net zero targets has more than doubled. The number of businesses with net zero targets has more than trebled to over 1,500. Together they boast revenues of over $11tr. In recent months they have been joined by the likes of BP, Microsoft, and PwC. In the past few days, Facebook, Ford, Morgan Stanley, and cement giant LafargeHolcim extended new net zero commitments.

Any company continuing to invest in high carbon infrastructure or betting on continued demand for internal combustion engine or fossil fuels needs to answer one question: are these myriad businesses, many of them among the most successful organisations in the world, run by liars or fools?

Of course, it's not quite that simple. The 'net' in net zero allows for some continued emissions that could yet be managed through nature based solutions or other negative emissions technologies. There is some carbon budget left that will be required by high carbon industries as they transition towards emerging cleaner technologies.

But even when those caveats are considered it is not quite as complicated as some observers suggest. The goal of a net zero economy within three decades is becoming the norm for responsible political and business leaders everywhere. You can doubt the feasibility of such goals and you can doubt the honesty of those setting them, but you can't doubt the publicly stated intent. Those targets have value, no matter how cynical you are feeling. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.

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