Join us.

We’re working to create a just society and preserve a healthy environment for future generations. Donate today to help.


The Net Zero / Carbon Neutral Enigma

Climate Justice Public Protections Air Climate Environmental Justice

Net zero, or carbon neutral, policies are changing the discussions around reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But, even with the wide adoption of the idea, questions remain. How much does the public understand about net zero? How is the policy defined, and what are its goals? Most significantly, is it addressing climate justice?


The idea of net zero/carbon neutral was popularized in the 2015 Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change adopted by 195 nations, representing nearly 99% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 98% of earth’s total population. The Paris Agreement specifically sets forth in Article 4 the proposal:

to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible . . . and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter . . . to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.

This is commonly known as the net zero target by 2050. Since nations signed on to the 2015 Paris Agreement, over 70 countries, responsible for 76% of global emissions, have set their own respective net zero targets.

In the United States, the Biden administration pledged to achieve a 50% – 52% reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution by 2030, a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035, and a net zero emissions economy by 2050. Twenty-two (22) states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have adopted pledges in the form of legislation and/or executive orders with additional jurisdictions advocating for further commitments. These jurisdictions have pledged to reduce emissions by varying degrees. For example, California and Hawaii have goals of 100% carbon neutrality by 2045, but New Mexico has a goal of 100% of electricity supplied by zero-carbon resources by 2045 and for Nevada, as well, by 2050.

Impact of Net Zero Goals

Such differences in targets could have a substantial impact on emissions reduction. Per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), net zero is “achieved when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period.” However, depending on a particular state’s decision — economy-wide versus sector reductions (e.g., electricity sector) over different time periods — the U.S. as a whole may have difficulty meeting its national target.

Further, as it stands, there is not yet an agreed-upon standard for the carbon accounting methods being used to assess emissions reductions, and it is unknown whether the same methods are being used across various sectors or jurisdictions to achieve net zero. (This extends not just to measuring future reductions, but even a business’s or region’s carbon footprint as it currently exists). Without an agreed upon baseline, it will be difficult to determine whether national and state commitments for net zero meet their stated deadlines and whether the impacts of the reduction actions are equitably distributed according to climate justice principles.

Consider air travel. Both California and Hawaii have 100% carbon neutrality goals by 2045. If an airplane is flying from California to Hawaii, which state will count in its state’s carbon footprint the air travel emissions to be reduced, and when will the emissions be attributed to a particular state? Will emissions be attributed to California when in California airspace and also be attributed to Hawaii when in Hawaii’s airspace? What if the plane is leaving from Maryland, which pledges to have a carbon neutral economy by 2045, but flies over several states without net zero goals, to travel to Hawaii? Which state will include the emissions from the flight to be reduced?

Further, there are the emissions associated with building, maintaining, and operating the plane and the lifecycle emissions of any cargo. Will such emissions be pro-rated (or depreciated) among the areas it flies through?

Additionally, the issue of carbon offsets must be decided and accounted for in net zero commitments. Carbon offset, as employed in California and by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative among the eastern states, is not necessarily emissions reduction. As some advocates have noted, the use of offsets “may conceal the need for deeper emissions reductions that are in line with what the science requires for the world to keep global warming to 1.5°C.”  

Net Zero and Climate Justice

In the eagerness to adopt net zero pledges, not just in the United States but around the world, climate justice must be at the heart of any commitments. A central driver of any pledge should be the understanding, as one group of scholars has recently written, that the “the cost to groups carrying the burden of decarbonisation . . . must be just, fair and equitable.” It cannot be forgotten that “‘green’ solutions often rely on dispossessing people from their homes and exacerbate inequalities along the lines of class, gender or ethnicity.”

While we need accounting of emissions  to be meaningful, we cannot forget that emissions and their removal have major climate justice equity implications, depending on when and where the emission occurred and who benefited from it. Chris Armstrong and Duncan McLaren have argued that “offsetting emissions from driving or flying (much of which may be considered a luxury activity) . . . may not be [comparable] with . . . emissions from subsistence food production, or from meeting other basic needs.”

Achieving Net Zero Commitments

Thus, for net zero commitments to achieve the intended results of the 2015 Paris Agreement, there should be set definitions for the terms and a uniform method of accounting for emissions and reductions.

Moreover, central to any pledges is the need to incorporate climate justice goals for an equitable society. It is a given that net zero policies will necessitate changes to our lives. These policies must fully account for and understand that the people most burdened by climate change should not be further burdened by efforts to mitigate it. In the words of Armstrong and McLaren, “it would be unjust to load the costs of transition onto the shoulders of those who can least afford to bear them.”

Climate Justice Public Protections Air Climate Environmental Justice

Subscribe to CPRBlog Digests

Subscribe to CPRBlog Digests to get more posts like this one delivered to your inbox.