Chart: Net-zero targets have gone global — but how meaningful are they?

National pledges to cut emissions to zero now cover 91% of the global economy, but many of them are too vague and reliant on offsets and carbon removal.

a green display that shows a leaf and the words CO2 zero percent 2050 net zero emissions, and the words chart of the week
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Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

Net zero” has become a buzzy term that’s popping up everywhere from national climate plans and campaign promises to marketing copy and investor slide decks. At least 128 countries and self-governing territories now have a net-zero target, according to the Net Zero Stocktake 2022 report by the Net Zero Tracker project. Those targets cover 80 percent of the global population, 83 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and a whopping 91 percent of global gross domestic product. That’s a huge increase from 2019, when national targets covered just 16 percent of global GDP.

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But as net-zero pledges have gone mainstream, so has skepticism about them. They can easily amount to nothing more than lip service. The Net Zero Stocktake assesses the credibility of targets by evaluating them against key metrics: The most robust pledges include interim emissions-cut targets, reporting requirements, coverage of greenhouse gases beyond carbon dioxide, and commitments to actually reduce emissions rather than rely on offsets and carbon removal. 

Most net-zero pledges from countries and subnational governments are not up to snuff; more than 75 percent do not specify whether they will use offsets. And more than half of the countries with targets plan to rely on carbon-dioxide removal, though the science and technology behind it is still far from robust. Less than half of national net-zero targets cover greenhouse gases other than CO2, like methane, and only about half of them have interim targets and published implementation plans. 

The private sector has also taken up the term net zero” with increased frequency to advertise its climate-friendliness. More than one-third of the world’s largest publicly traded companies, including fossil fuel companies, have net-zero targets. But according to the report, these targets perhaps represent symbolic behavior — or even flat-out greenwashing — rather than corporate climate leadership.” Only around half of them have interim targets, nearly 40 percent rely on the use of carbon offsets, and about two-thirds do not yet meet minimum procedural standards for target setting.” 

So while net-zero targets are important — they are the most prevalent way that countries and companies are making and communicating decarbonization plans — tougher standards and accountability mechanisms are critical to their success, and, ultimately, to reaching the world’s climate goals.

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Maria Virginia Olano is editorial and research associate at Canary Media.