In March, the IPCC released a devastating summary of its forthcoming “synthesis report” on recent climate research. In addition to cataloguing the horrors expected to result on our current climate trajectory, it reiterates the only surefire way to halt these trends: “From a physical science perspective, limiting human-caused global warming to a specific level requires . . . reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions.” In other words, humans must figure out how to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as we put into it each year.
This scientific concept of net-zero emissions has quickly become an organizing policy paradigm, enshrined in the Paris Agreement and manifested in thousands of “net-zero” pledges developed by countries, states, cities, and private companies. Collectively, these pledges now purport to cover more than 91% of the global economy. If this figure sounds too good to be true, that’s because it likely is. Already, there is evidence that many entities will fall short of their pledges. But even among those concerned about pledge integrity, the problem is usually framed as one of enforcement, best addressed via standard-setting organizations and market certification schemes that serve as a check against false promises.
Let’s assume (perhaps implausibly) that these voluntary checking mechanisms work to weed out false pledges. Even still, as I have previously argued at greater length, the challenges of this new net-zero paradigm extend far beyond pledge enforcement. Net zero is anti-democratic, inequitable, and imperial. For related reasons that I focus on in this post, it is also unlikely to work as a strategy to achieve the collective global aim of net-zero carbon emissions.