Why net zero matters in our campaigns

Net zero is a bold goal. Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, it’s been talked about more and more.

We think the surge in interest is for three key reasons:

  • If we can get to net zero quickly, we stand a chance of stopping the worst effects of climate change.
  • It is a useful target to focus minds: for politicians, campaigners and everyone else. It allows us all to think about what changes we need to make to reduce our net emissions to zero.
  • It seems to be working. In a number of countries around the world, net zero has been proven to have a big impact on campaigners, policy experts, business leaders and politicians.

We’re not saying it’s perfect, by any means. ActionAid did a fantastic report in 2020, “Not Zero”, which:

Highlights concerns that many governments and corporations are jumping on the bandwagon and declaring “net zero” climate targets.

These announcements might sound like they signify ambitious climate action. But unfortunately, the “net” in “net zero” is being used to green-wash weak climate targets, and could end up driving huge land grabs, particularly in the global South.

Instead of accepting “net zero” targets at face value, civil society and media must scrutinise these announcements to assess whether they signify real climate action

Oxfam agreed, warning in August 2021 that:

governments and companies are ‘hiding behind unreliable, unproven and unrealistic carbon removal schemes’ in order to hit targets.

They’re of course 100% right: making a declaration of net zero without backing it up with a real plan isn’t going to help us tackle the climate crisis.

Some people also say net zero isn’t enough. Shouldn’t we go net-negative sooner? Others highlight that it’s not fair that rich countries were able to industrialise powered by high-emitting fossil fuels, and that those countries should pay for other countries to find their own greener course. They’re right, and it’s good to see that more and more politicians agree, including UK Prime Minister, and leader of the COP26 host country, Boris Johnson, who said in September 2021:

Richer nations have reaped the benefits of untrammelled pollution for generations, often at the expense of developing countries… As those countries now try to grow their economies in a clean, green and sustainable way we have a duty to support them in doing so – with our technology, with our expertise and with the money we have promised.

The interviews in this guide have led us to conclude that net zero is best seen as a guide-star, that will help us all push decision-makers to make the big, bold, decisions we need to rapidly tackle the climate crisis. But, to be most useful, we as campaigners need to push those in power to:

  • Commit to net zero by 2050 ASAP because the science says we don’t have time to lose.
  • Find a fair, equitable, inclusive and sustainable path to net zero because we need to achieve net zero in a manner that builds fairer societies and accounts for historical injustices.

If you’re not yet convinced net zero can be a helpful concept for campaigners, here are some important words from Brazil and the UK:

SPOTLIGHT: Brazil A collective goal is an achievement that activists can build on
‘I know it was pretty difficult for many countries to accept the notion that we should have a collective goal like net zero. I think having net zero is absolutely crucial, and already a big collective achievement.

I find it super exciting to see that this goal has already been established and has become a reference for businesses and activists all over the world. Now a lot of people, much more than ever before, are creating their own targets around it. I think that’s absolutely unbelievable. I would say five years ago I would never have expected that to happen so quickly.’

Natalie Unterstell