Was 2022 the beginning of the end for the net-zero movement?

Compared to the ever-present drumbeat of the net-zero movement in 2021, this year has delivered an array of complex challenges that have threatened to derail efforts to reach the 1.5C limit. But in the face of geopolitical and economic constraints, did 2022 deliver a death knell for the net-zero movement?

Was 2022 the beginning of the end for the net-zero movement?

Christiana Figueres’ Global Optimism movement has championed the need of becoming a stubborn optimist. Doing so, sees people adopt the mindset that ‘impossible is not a fact, it is an attitude’, but 2022 may well test the resolve of even the most stubborn of optimists.

The impacts of the climate crisis are tangible and worsening as we speak. The devastation of the floods in Pakistan this summer led to the deaths of more than 1,700 people, two million homes destroyed and millions of children displaced from school as a result of the devastation. The Pakistani Government places the damage at a total of more than $30bn.

Wildfires, flash floods and even immigration and displacement caused by climate-related conflicts have all hit the headlines with alarming frequency over the last few years.

But as the risks of the climate crisis become more visible, surely the desire, want and the necessity to respond to it grow as well?

Cast your mind back more than 12 months to COP26 where the Glasgow Climate Pact left the 1.5C and net-zero movement “alive”, but “in intensive care”.

As the gavel came down on the Glasgow Climate Pact, created at COP26, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published research based on the updated climate commitments made during COP26. These include India’s net-zero target for 2070 and how more than 100 nations have pledged to cut methane by 30% by 2030.

The IEA estimates that, if these targets were met on time, the world would be on course for an 1.8C global temperature rise by the end of the century. Others put the trajectory at a slightly different number, most notably Climate Resource claiming the pledges would lead to 1.9C of warming. This is a more optimistic reading however. Climate Action Tracker (CAT) published analysis during COP26, stating that they are likely to result in 2.4C of warming.

One of the key agreements of the Glasgow Climate Pact was that nations would agree to revisit climate targets with the aim, of strengthening them over the coming years. These formal country pledges (NDCs) were ideally meant to be updated prior to COP27.

Surely, as the window for action shrinks, nations have collectively upped their ambitions to alleviate the greatest threat facing humanity?

NDCs and COPs

It appears not. Research from Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) finds that just 24 nations have submitted updated NDCs since COP26, and these are unlikely to shift the dial on the net-zero movement. As of mid-October 2022, of the 24 new national updates, only Australia has substantially updated its emissions goals. Australia is the largest emitter to update its NDC with a new 2030 target for a 43% cut in emissions on 2005 levels. This, the ETC claims, has lowered the 2030 emissions gap by around 0.1 Gt.

Overall, the updated NDCs to date will “make only a very limited contribution to closing the 2030 emissions gap” and keeps the world on course for more than 2C of warming.

As 2022 drew to a close, a sense of optimism swelled as nations met in Egypt for COP27, the “world’s last best chance to limit global warming to 1.5C”. As negotiations drew on and overran in Sharm el-Shaikh, however, that optimism soon flatlined.

While a monumental agreement was delivered that will see developed nations contribute to a loss and damage funding facility, expected to commence next year, delegates expressed their disappointment at the weakening of key language in the final text that creates confusion and potential loopholes around “low emissions” energy to be used alongside renewables.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the formation of the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, but noted that deals struck at COP27 do not adequately introduce mechanisms to take the planet out of “the emergency room”.

Attention then turned to Montreal, for the culmination of more than two years of negotiations on the CBD’s COP15 summit, which has suffered from Covid-related delays.

The gavel came down on those negotiations this week, with a new “Paris-style” deal for nature. Given that nature-based solutions can account for one-third (close to 7Gt CO2) of the climate mitigation to reach a 1.5C trajectory by 2030 – and at a lower cost than other solutions – what was established in Montreal may well act as the bedrock for the net-zero movement moving forward.

The summit was widely regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to accelerate global efforts to protect and restore nature, but not all delegates are confident this will be achieved through the new framework.

The new framework aims to “take urgent action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss to put nature on a path to recovery for the benefit of people and planet by conserving and sustainably using biodiversity, and ensuring the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources, while providing the necessary means of implementation.”

Weakened wording around financial mechanisms and missing details have muddied the waters of this landmark new deal.

COP15’s Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, COP27’s loss and damage breakthrough and Glasgow’s Climate Pact are all notable steps forward in the efforts to protect humanity and the planet, but are all accompanied by various loopholes that suggest that if the journey to net-zero is too taxing, nations, businesses and the economy itself will revert back to the damaging ways of business as usual.

So in a year where transformational change was required, the planet instead got short-changed. We are still facing and causing the next mass extinction and we are only just starting to adapt to the damage we’ve caused. Indeed, the UN Environment Programme estimates that the global cost of adapting to the climate crisis is expected to grow to $140-300bn per year by 2030 and $280-500bn per year by 2050.

Reasons to remain a stubborn optimist

Many will point to other megatrends that have disrupted the economy as to why the net-zero movement is failing to pick up the pace.

The coronavirus pandemic has left parts of the world reeling and has slowed down global supply chains. The energy and cost of living crisis have led many non-state actors to switch focus to the short-term and others see war, famine and mass displacement of communities as something that is more actionable than the climate crisis. But one thing all of these trends have in common is that climate crisis runs through them. It is the single thread that disrupts all parts of the economy and only a coordinated and accelerated response to the climate crisis will start to ease these other megatrends.

Even as policymakers buckled during key negotiations in 2022 (or in the case of the UK, approving a new coal mine that jeopardises an already unlawful net-zero strategy), major non-state actors have driven forward under the mindset that is “impossible is not a fact, it is an attitude”.

At the end of the first week at COP27, hundreds of the world’s largest businesses and civil society groups delivered a joint declaration of action to meeting 1.5C at COP27, calling on nations to “decide where they stand” in raising ambitions in order to meet the aims of the Paris Agreement.

Convened through the We Mean Business coalition, prominent corporate leaders including Sir Richard Branson, Steve Howard, Arianna Huffington, Mary Robinson and Johan Rockström have joined more than 200 businesses in signing a declaration that business and civil society are “all in” to deliver the Paris Agreement.

In total, more than 2,200 companies have committed to science-based targets through the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and 80% of companies that had targets approved last year were aligned with the 1.5C pathway.

The SBTi’s Progress report also notes that companies with approved targets had collectively reduced emissions by 29% between 2015 and 2020, compared to a 25% reduction for the four years prior.

Incremental change is happening at a faster pace, but 2023 needs to be the year when science-based, net-zero targets become the norm, rather than an outlier. Achieving net-zero should be a prerequisite of a responsible business and we need more examples of businesses delivering paradigm shifts of what corporate sustainability looks like.

Whether it’s the cohort of corporates that are looking beyond net-zero to deliver a net-positive future, the select few organisations seeking to account for their historic emissions, or even the likes of Patagonia, which announced plans to allocate all profits that are not re-invested back into the company to environmental causes, it is clear that net-zero shouldn’t be viewed as the end destination, but rather as a milestone on a journey to truly transform what business looks like as a force for good.

So maybe 2022 was the beginning of the end for net-zero, but only as we know it. Many governments need to revisit and restrengthen net-zero strategies, and many businesses will be looking at frameworks like the SBTi and the new transition plans required for UK plc next year. An evolution of net-zero ambitions is required.

It’s clear that net-zero has spent all of 2022 in the emergency room and treating it as a target, something confined to a spreadsheet that needs to be ticked off, won’t work. If there are lessons to be learned from this year its that disruptive trends emerge quickly and transform society for better or worse even quicker. So let’s make 2023 the year that businesses shift from net-zero targets to net-zero mindsets and actions that disrupt society and traditional ways of working for the better.

This is not the beginning of the end for net-zero, but rather the end of the beginning and a new chapter of climate action needs to be written in 2023.

Comments (2)

  1. Hugh Sharman says:

    This Autumn saw the publication by Finland’s Geological Survey of (sorry to say) the first serious attempt to quantify the Global metal and mineral demand required to deliver the “net zero” of which you write.

    This is orders of magnitude greater than can possibly be delivered before 2050, let alone remotely ESG-compliantly.


    Fossil fuels delibered 82% of Global primary energy demand in 2021, down 1% from 2020. Renewables supplied 6.7% up 0.5% from 2020.

    It’s long past time for “net zero” advocates to face realities! Your challenge for 2023. You know how to get in touch! Warmest Seasonal Greetings!

    1. Ian Byrne says:

      @Hugh Sharman. It’s all very well pointing out the very real challenges to attaining net zero, but you cannot ignoring the different challenges posed by runaway climate change. Would you recommend massive programmes of adaptation, and wouldn’t that also create use resource implications? Or would you just sit on your hands and hope that the next generation will think of some other way of solving the problem?

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