Jun 12, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Net zero targets proliferate as credibility lags: data

Illustration of a ruler with smoke coming out of the top, like a smokestack.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Progress toward achieving net zero emissions targets among cities, states and corporations has been sluggish despite a proliferation of commitments in recent years, a comprehensive new assessment finds.

Why it matters: In particular, gaps in company net zero targets mirror problems at the national level. Relatively few have laid out detailed plans to achieve their goals, and most others are falling short amid continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Zoom in: The report, from an independent research initiative that includes the University of Oxford and the New Climate Institute, finds that dozens more companies now aim to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, compared to the first such assessment in 2020.

  • In fact, large companies with net zero commitments have more than doubled in the past 2.5 years, and now cover about $26.4 trillion in annual revenue, the report finds.
  • The report notes that 67% of fossil fuel companies have set net zero commitments, "But an absence of oil and gas phase-out plans leaves those targets misaligned with the scientific and policy consensus."

How it works: Per the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), emissions would reach net zero when they are completely balanced by their removal via ecosystems. That includes forests and the oceans, potential carbon dioxide removal technologies, or other infrastructure.

Between the lines: Up until the past year, the criteria for having a credible target was not clearly spelled out. However, a convergence of reports and proposed standards lay out what is needed.

  • For example, the U.N. Race to Zero Campaign published standards in June 2022.
  • It includes the need for a company to account for all of its emissions, including those from the end users of its products, also known as Scope 3.
  • Most of the 77 fossil fuel company net zero targets, for example, don't include Scope 3 emissions, which tend to be these companies' largest emissions culprit. The report says this deficiency makes the commitments from this sector, "largely meaningless."
  • The Race to Zero criteria also include identifying when and how a company would use offsets.
  • Other efforts, such as work by a panel U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed, further clarify a viable goal from an empty promise.

Of note: The report, which is based on publicly available information from a growing net zero targets database, found only 37% of corporate net zero targets fully cover emissions from end users of company products, and just 13% lay out the conditions where offsets can be used.

The intrigue: While net zero targets are trendy, studies examining their likelihood of being achieved leave considerable room for skepticism, researchers note.

  • "Omissions, caveats and distortions often mean a company's commitment is far weaker than the headline targets would indicate," the report states.
  • In addition, the report cautions that privately-held companies are likely performing more poorly than publicly-listed firms subject to closer scrutiny.
Go deeper