When companies, banks, investors, cities and regions make net zero commitments, we need to be able to trust them
While walking down a street in Toronto, I recently saw an ad touting the net zero merits of a fossil fuel company. But to see such claims that challenge my beliefs, I wouldn’t even need to leave my house.
According to a study by Guardian and InfluenceMap, these ads are all over Google. Ads for oil giant Shell, for example, appeared in 86% of searches for ‘net zero’, and many promote the company’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. Are companies finally waking up to the urgency of the climate crisis, or is it just more greenwashing?
One thing is certain: the climate crisis is rapidly worsening. California is experiencing record heat waves. A third of Pakistan is under water. China is suffering from a devastating drought, which could have global ramifications. And that is exactly what is happening right now. From cold spells in Texas to wildfires in Europe, climate change has become impossible to ignore.
Climate action has come a long way since the Paris climate agreement was signed in 2015. Notably, net zero has become mainstream, with around 90% of global GDP now covered by net zero targets. And it’s not just governments that have adopted them; many of the world’s largest companies have done so as well, driven by a combination of commercial interests, investor expectations and consumer pressure.
But if corporations – including even fossil fuel companies – are now “climate leaders,” fully and vocally committed to the cause of net zero, why do emissions continue to rise? A look at the history of climate action reveals the answer.
Over the past 20 years, a wide range of climate initiatives have sought to persuade businesses and investors to buy into the idea of setting climate-related targets, reducing emissions, and then setting even more ambitious goals. . These initiatives had one thing in common: they were all voluntary.
As anyone who’s ever broken a New Year’s resolution knows firsthand, a promise made isn’t always a promise kept. If someone says they will achieve net zero, how can we be sure they are taking the necessary steps to get there? At this time, we cannot.
This has enabled ‘freewheeling air conditioning’, with companies selling themselves as environmentally conscious while continuing to business as usual. In fact, only one in three corporate net zero plans currently cover a company’s entire carbon footprint, including that of its supply chain. And none of the world’s biggest polluting companies have fully explained how they plan to achieve net zero emissions.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently said, “The world is in a race against time, and we cannot afford slow moves, fake moves or any form of greenwashing.” These are the problems that the High Level Expert Group on Net Zero Emissions Commitments, which I chair, is supposed to solve. We are a group of independent and diverse experts committed to providing science-based recommendations to achieve the goal that so many governments and businesses have embraced.
Our work has only just begun, but three things are already clear. First, a commitment without a plan is meaningless. Companies need to align their business strategies with their commitments, take ambitious action, and start making progress immediately. And that doesn’t mean rigging the numbers with dodgy shifts; the only credible way to reach net zero is to reduce emissions.
To support this effort, the High Level Expert Group will define what it will take to achieve net zero emissions. This includes establishing clear criteria for credible net zero plans that consider issues of equity and climate justice. Regional and industry standard setters can then adopt our criteria, ensuring consistency and comparability.
Second, voluntary schemes are not enough. We don’t need New Year’s resolutions; we need new business plans. Regulation will be key here, both to ensure the replacement of voluntary climate roadmaps with mandatory strategies and to level the playing field. A central objective of the High Level Expert Group is to map the necessary regulations.
Finally, accountability is essential. When companies, banks, investors, cities and regions make net zero commitments, we need to be able to trust them. Fair rules of engagement will help. But governments, corporations and financiers must also embrace radical transparency. Progress will be easy to spot: investments in clean energy will displace investments in fossil fuels and emissions will decline.
Already, our expert panel has engaged more than 800 groups, met with thousands of people, and received nearly 300 submissions detailing how net zero commitments can be improved – a clear indication of stakeholders’ desire to get it right. Success would not only give us a chance to stabilize the climate; it would bring vast economic opportunities. According to McKinsey, the growing demand for net zero offers could generate more than $12 trillion in sales per year by 2030.
Last year, I left politics to devote my time to the two things that mattered most to me: my children and climate change. The two priorities are deeply linked. If we are to avoid a future where our children buy net zero bacon between floods and fires, we must close the gap between the promises we hear and the action we need. – Catherine McKenna, former Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change, is Chair of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Net-Zero Emissions Commitments by Non-State Entities.