Can COP27 rejuvenate the net-zero movement?

From unlawful net-zero strategies in the UK to the ousting of climate deniers in Australia and Brazil, momentum towards a net-zero future has had its highs and lows in 2022. But the question remains, what will COP27 achieve?

Can COP27 rejuvenate the net-zero movement?

12 months is a long time in the business community, but when the window to combat and alleviate the most severe impacts of the climate crisis shortens by the day, 12 months can quickly become 12 minutes to midnight.

But what a bruising and vandalising 12 months it’s been for the net-zero movement. In November 2021 world leaders touched down in Glasgow for COP26 to enshrine new mechanisms into an agreement that would keep 1.5C alive. In truth, 1.5C is alive, but in intensive care.

In the build-up to COP26, net-zero was the national zeitgeist. It dominated headlines, documentaries and most importantly, business commitments.

Currently, the UN’s Race to Zero initiative is the largest-ever alliance committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. It consists of 11,309 non-State actors, 8,307 companies, 595 financial institutions, 1,136 cities, 52 states and regions, 1,125 educational institutions and 65 healthcare institutions. More broadly, net-zero targets cover more than 90% of global GDP.

But targets don’t equate to action and as the dust settled on the Glasgow Climate Pact, the Blue Zone at COP26 emptied and a new year started so to did a set of tumultuous events that seem to have created a platform for a vocal minority to push back on the net-zero transition.

For decades, climate scientists have faced a barrage of unwarranted and dismissive criticism as to the cause, impacts and severity of the climate crisis. Now, even as the majority of the world’s nations push towards net-zero emissions, a small yet vocal minority is muddying the waters on the cost of net-zero.

The backdrop to this latest pushback against climate science is the spiralling energy costs, caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which has spiked the prices of fossil-derived gas.

Since then many businesses and governments have reverted back to short-termism, a focus on economic stability during a cost of living crisis. While fossil fuel giants boasted eye-watering and angering profits, many households are preparing for a harsh winter, with some potentially having to choose between a warm house and a warm meal.

We’ve seen the Net-Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSC) emerge in the UK, a small but well-connected group of MPs that struggle to actually scrutinise the net-zero movement and instead incessantly call for green and eco schemes to be scrapped at a policy level. Other MPs and lobbying groups, including the now former BEIS minister Jacob Rees-Mogg have been vocal in support of fracking and expanded deep sea oil and gas exploration, two components that swim against the tide of the net-zero movement.

Then we have the fact that the High Court has ruled that the Net-Zero Strategy is unlawful and that the Government, now under its third Conservative leader in as many months, still needs to deliver a coherent and law-abiding plan to decarbonise.

Even at a corporate level, that unstoppable wave of net-zero commitments we saw in 2021 has subsided, with businesses fretting over energy costs despite the fact that net-zero strategies will help reduce energy demand. A new concerning trend has also emerged called  ‘greenhushing’ – the practice of taking sustainability action but then not communicating this with key stakeholders or the general public. One in four (26%) companies who had applied to the SBTi have not published information about the new targets on their own websites or reports, according to research.

If 2022 were a boxing match, many would be tempted to throw in the towel now. But corporate sustainability is brimming with “stubborn optimists” – those that get up each day and keep pushing for a sustainable and equitable future.

The Covid-19 pandemic did not “cost us our moment”, as Paris Agreement architect Tom Rivett-Carnac put it, to accelerate climate mitigation and adaptation. Instead, against a backdrop of physical risks crystallising in the form of wildfires in Australia, California and even the Arctic Circle; a fresh appreciation for science-based approaches and the realisation that prevention can be better than cure, the net-zero and green recovery movements snowballed.

Those snowballs are now in danger of melting, but as we approach COP27 in Egypt we are witnessing a few global shifts that could breathe fresh life into the 1.5C pathway.

There is a palpable buzz in the online climate space following the Brazilian elections. Jair Bolsonaro was ousted by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, after almost four years in power.

In environmentalist circles, Bolsonaro is hated as a figure who, at best, failed to stop deforestation and pollution in the Amazon, and, at worst, actively encouraged damaging practices. Greenpeace has publicly called the man “a catastrophe for the environment”. Activists on the ground in Brazil have reported a “race” to clear land ahead of the election given the prospect of Bolsonaro’s premiership ending. A report from Carbon Brief states that deforestation rates could fall by around 90% with Bolsonaro out.

Lula has promised to update Brazil’s Paris Agreement commitments and to appoint a climate envoy. In his campaign, he also touted the creation of a new collaboration with other rainforest nations to coordinate and accelerate conservation.

Elsewhere, the United Arab Emirates has legislated for a 2050 net-zero target after first announcing the move last October. National representatives told media earlier this year that it has been pushed to implement the target partly due to the growth of net-zero targets in the energy industry.

Australia has also submitted an updated NDC to the UN, following the ousting of Scott Morrison as Prime Minister at its recent election.

Prior to these landmark events we had US President Joe Biden’s energy and climate forum. Biden confirmed that his administration, and that of Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi are partnering to develop a new initiative focused on improving climate resilience across Africa.

Much of the US’s climate commitments have also been enshrined under the Inflation Reduction Act – a package of measures to help vulnerable people pay for health care and to reduce emissions, with a focus on energy and transport

The final version of the Act allocates a total of $369bn to climate action. It is hoped that the changes resulting from the Act will enable the US to reduce its annual domestic emissions by at least 40% by 2030, against a 2005 baseline.

Egypt has confirmed ‘together for implementation’ as its overarching mantra for COP27, and it appears that many of the historic climate laggards are now stepping up in a sense of last-minute unity that is often confined to a Hollywood script.

It may not exactly be the Avengers assembling, but the success of COP27 was never going to be the formation of a new world-leading climate commitment. Rather, COP27 can inject a sense of momentum into the net-zero movement by enabling businesses, nations, NGOs and activists to come together to remind each other of the severe challenges and consequences of inaction, but also the economic stability, potential for growth and societal improvements that action can bring.

Net-zero is still on life support, but it may just be about to get its second wind.

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