With the growing urgency to address climate change, governments and companies are developing “net-zero” strategies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions . However, according to the UN’s High Level Expert Group, many of these strategies are not based on credible science and are actually used to greenwash polluters and delay climate action.

To mitigate the worst of the climate damages that we face, we need to limit global heating to 1.5°C, which according to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), means that global emissions need to be cut in half this decade.

However, rather than working to reduce their polluting emissions immediately, governments and companies are choosing to adopt long-term climate action goals and frame them as “net-zero” targets. The concept of “net-zero by 2050” is based on the assumption that there are some acceptable emissions that do not need to be reduced. But will this really be enough to limit global heating and avert the worst climate change impacts?

Instead of focusing solely on a “net-zero” strategy, governments and companies should pursue achieving “real zero” targets by aiming to reduce emissions as close to zero, in all possible sectors. That’s the best path for a clean and healthy future.

Risks of “Net-Zero by 2050”

There is a risk in using 2050 as the sole target date for climate action, as it implies that there is no urgency in needing to reduce emissions, when the opposite is the case. Using net-zero as the main frame for a climate strategy also suggests that greenhouse gas emitters don’t have to prioritize reducing emissions from their operations, but can rather remove emissions through unproven carbon removal technologies, such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCUS), and by using carbon offsets (such as planting trees, which doesn’t always make up for the emissions).

An overreliance on CCUS only serves to preserve the status quo and risks diverting resources from the proven, cost effective solutions, like renewable energy, that are needed in the near-term to dramatically reduce emissions. Another issue in many net-zero plans is the dependence on carbon offsets, which can lack environmental integrity and additionality, while helping emitters escape accountability.

For Canada to be successful in meeting its climate change commitments, the priority needs to be on getting its domestic emissions as close to zero, as fast as possible. Research shows that the most effective way to meet climate goals is to act urgently in the short-term and have a strong plan for long-term action. This decade is decisive – there needs to be strong interim targets (2026 and 2030) to ensure that we have a chance to get a handle on our emissions and create a climate-safe world.

A guide to differentiate between credible climate change strategies and greenwashing attempts: 

  • Does it align with a science-based pathway? – Strategies should stay aligned with a pathway that is consistent with keeping global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius or less. They should also prioritize immediate action with ambitious interim targets (2026 and 2030) that keep them on trajectory to achieving long term goals.
  • Does it prioritize rapid decarbonisation? – Credible climate action plans must prioritize expansion of clean energy sources (wind, solar, electric vehicles), which are cheaper and more efficient than their fossil fuel counterparts. Renewable technologies are also currently available and are proven to work.
  • Does it phase out the use of fossil fuels? – Strategies should not be considered legitimate if they propose continued reliance on fossil fuels. This means that any legitimate climate plan should incorporate a phaseout of fossil fuels (i.e. no new funding or expansion of fossil fuel projects) and instead focus on supporting the transition of their operations to 100 per cent  renewable energy sources.
  • Does it avoid speculative technologies? –  Technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCUS) are touted by many governments and companies as the solution to climate change. However, in reality, these technologies are expensive, unproven at scale and have very limited success rates, while locking us into a continued dependence on fossil fuels. For climate action strategies to be considered credible, they should prioritize proven methods of emissions reduction in favor of emissions removal through unproven technologies.
  • Is it comprehensive in the scope of emissions covered? – For climate strategies to be comprehensive, they need to cover direct and indirect emissions released, including emissions released in the use of their products – commonly referred to as scope 3 (or downstream) emissions. A vast majority of emissions released are in the burning of fossil fuels (in vehicles, home heating and cooking along with industrial uses). For climate strategies to be effective, they need to address all the emissions.
  • Does it rely on actual emissions reductions, instead of offsets? – Climate action strategies can not be considered science-aligned if there is inclusion of offsets. Because the entire world will need to get as close to zero emissions as possible, the use of offsets become irrelevant as there can be no “away”. Additionally, many carbon offsets lack environmental integrity and additionality.
  • Does it plan for a just transition? – Credible climate change strategies should advance a just transition, meaning that the net-zero strategies are written in partnership with all rights holders (local Indigenous nations and governments) and stakeholders affected by the transition (workers, communities), and potential adverse impacts on these communities are proactively identified, disclosed and addressed.

For net-zero strategies to be considered credible, they must address all of the questions above. Otherwise, they are nothing more than a sad attempt at greenwashing to help polluters escape their responsibilities to reduce emissions. With climate catastrophes increasing in frequency and intensity in communities across the world, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until 2050 to implement strong climate action – we need it now.