Are Net-Zero Emission Pledges Credible?

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Climate change pledges require concrete government policies to ensure their enforceability and effectiveness.

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President-Elect Joe Biden has named John Kerry as his special presidential envoy for climate. Kerry, one of the architects of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, will serve to reassure the world about the United States’ commitment to climate issues.

The Paris Agreement seeks to limit the global rise of temperature by the end of the century to two degrees Celsius—and ideally to 1.5 degrees Celsius—relative to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, greenhouse gas emissions must be eliminated by 2050. Twenty-eight countries plus the European Union have announced zero emission goals. The most recent country is South Korea, which is following the example set by its neighbors, Japan and China.

President-Elect Biden’s July 2020 climate plan also outlined a zero emission pledge. States, such as California and Washington, and companies, such as Microsoft and Google, have also announced net-zero emission pledges.

But there is a catch.

Net zero does not mean that the country will completely stop emitting carbon. Although countries will certainly reduce emissions by switching over from coal to solar or wind to generate electricity, or from cars powered by gasoline to electric cars, some emissions are inevitable. The net-zero pledge obligates a country to capture or offset these emissions through traditional methods such as planting trees or adopting newer technologies such as those that separate carbon from flue gas and inject it underground where these emissions cannot escape. 

Climate change is a problem of global commons: All countries benefit from reduced emissions, but individual countries bear the costs of decreasing emissions. This imbalance means that countries have an incentive to free-ride on others’ efforts, an argument that climate policy skeptics often employ.

Yet countries want to look legitimate by adopting the right kinds of policies. If climate protection becomes a global norm, countries might want to announce the net-zero pledges to get international recognition. Take the case of South Korea, which wanted to be viewed at par with its regional peers Japan and China. If Japan and China have announced zero emissions pledges, South Korea does not want to be left behind.

Whether pledges are effective is subject to debate. After all, they are not ironclad, enforceable commitments. The Net Zero Tracker provided by the nonprofit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit offers a list of 125 countries with their varying levels of commitment toward net-zero emission. Some countries have enacted or will enact domestic laws. These countries include the United Kingdom, France, and New Zealand. But other countries, such as South Korea, Japan, Germany, and South Africa, have not announced new domestic laws or policies. Unless countries legislate net-zero emission targets domestically, their zero-emissions pledges are not binding.

The problems with voluntary pledges run deeper.

Because 2050 is about three decades in the future, it is unclear how progress toward 2050 targets will be monitored. To remain on track, countries should identify short term, interim targets. But even then, what will be the penalty if interim targets are not met? After all, only a handful of countries have met the climate targets outlined in the 1998 Kyoto Protocol. So far, most countries are not meeting their goals under the Paris Agreement, either. Without a sanctioning mechanism, pledges are less effective in encouraging governments to enact domestic climate policies to meet their targets.

Still, climate change is recognized as a critical global problem, and countries face growing pressures to demonstrate their political desire to address it.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, which played an important role in creating the political momentum toward these pledges. To limit the temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the IPCC stressed that greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 45 percent between 2010 and 2030 and then become net-zero by 2050.

This guideline provided a focal issue for pro-climate activists around the world.

An unprecedented number of young people are mobilizing over climate issues, both through street activism and lawsuits. Youth involvement is perhaps best exemplified by the global prominence of Greta Thunberg, a Swedish high school student and climate change activist. The September 2019 climate protests that she organized prompted more than 4,500 events in 150 countries during just a single week. These activists claim that their generation will be forced to bear the high costs of climate change if the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal is not met—a universal appeal that is not limited by class, nationality, or ethnicity.

Transnational youth activism has also invigorated domestic climate movements in many countries. For example, in August 2019, more than 300 South Korean organizations formed a coalition called Climate Crisis Emergency Action Network to join the September 2019 climate protests. This effort allowed existing groups to partner with newly created youth groups to pool resources and pressure the Korean government to create climate change policies.

Since then, Korean youth groups have engaged in several direct actions against the government, such as sit-in protests, petitions, and disruption of seminars and conferences hosted by the government. A week before South Korea announced its 2050 net-zero pledge, activist group Youth Climate Emergency Action broke into a public hearing on emission reduction targets, critiquing the South Korean government’s passive attitude toward 2050 net-zero emission goal.

The IPCC report provided a clear vocabulary to transnational climate activists. Their demands have increased pressure on governments to declare net-zero emission pledges.

But it is not clear how governments will translate their pledges into concrete policies, especially if this will require substantial changes to their economies. Pledges are at risk of becoming cheap talk that governments use to placate climate groups. Whether countries will institutionalize pledges into legally binding policies remains to be seen.

John Kerry’s task will be to reassert the United States’ climate leadership in the world. But this requires the United States to enact into domestic law aggressive zero emission policies to honor its Paris Agreement pledge. It remains to be seen whether Senate Republicans, who currently hold the majority—pending the outcome of runoff elections in Georgia—will be willing to work with the upcoming Biden Administration toward the adoption of policies that can lead to net-zero emissions in the United States by 2050.

Inhwan Ko

Inhwan Ko is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science and a graduate fellow in the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Nives Dolšak

Nives Dolšak is the director of, and Stan and Alta Barer Endowed Professor in Sustainability Science in, the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Aseem Prakash

Aseem Prakash is the founding director of the Center for Environmental Politics and the Walker Family Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle.