A critical perspective of Net-Zero

By Jose Luis Resendiz
Latin America Analyst

Net-Zero concept emerged after the international community accepted the need to maintain the global rise of temperature below 2°C. For this purpose, CO2 emissions must be zero by 2050, and all the other GHG must do it by 2067, according to the IPCC. Then, the Net-Zero concept means that carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced as much as possible and that the remnants would be absorbed using natural and artificial resources.[i] Since 2016 and especially in the last two years, multiple governments and corporations have pledged to be Net-Zero in the coming decades, most of them by 2050 or earlier.

An insightful commentary from the former chair of IPCC, Robert Watson, together with James Dyke and Wolfang Knorr,[ii] suggest that Net-Zero “helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now”. The scientists criticised that the Net-Zero idea was created to protect business-as-usual instead of the climate.

Net-Zero has multiple problems, like double-counting and the genuine possibility that we will not absorb as many emissions as we need, especially if the world does not do enough to cut their emissions. Also, there is a long way to go in the implementation of Net-Zero initiatives and pledges.

Double counting is a coordination issue. Imagine a transportation company reduces the CO2 emissions of its vehicles, and then Amazon purchases those vehicles for its operations. Both companies will be willing to count those CO2 emissions for their net-zero plan disclosures, but the Earth only counts them once.

Additionally, Net-Zero pledges heavily rely on developing technologies that do not still exist or have not proven efficiency in capturing CO2.[iii] Carbon capture natural solutions also represent a problem. For a mangrove or a forest to effectively prevent CO2 from being released into the atmosphere, they need to survive. Every ton of CO2 captured in the natural environment is at risk of being liberated if we cannot protect the natural body that contains it. For example, the bioenergy production needed to follow the Net-Zero pathway of IEA exploits lands, threatening forests.[iv]

Even if we could preserve the trees, mangroves and other means of carbon capture, all those would eventually die, releasing that carbon into the atmosphere. Of course, we can think of solutions for recapturing for the moment that happens. Still, we want to point out that carbon capture implies a very complex network of technology, policy and monitoring, which may be too challenging to be implemented on time.

How to operate Net-Zero initiatives? There is not yet a consensus about which investments should continue since many carbon-intensive industries are still needed for the transition. Also, there are doubts surrounding offsets certificates. Many companies purchased certificates from companies or ONGs that pledge to be helping the conservation of forests or mangroves, but the verification of those pledges is questionable.

Nevertheless, other experts have said that the problem is not the Net-Zero concept but the way that is being implemented.[v] It will be impossible for some industries to reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2050; therefore, those sectors need to use emissions offsets to achieve that target. Also, as the case against the German government revealed, setting Net-zero targets can be helpful for accountability and enforcement.[vi]

Governments and citizens should decide which sectors are those based on the best available climate and technical evaluations. In industries where we do not have technological alternatives, Net-Zero policies are needed, but where other possibilities exist, should we allow companies to keep investing in polluting activities, hoping they will capture those emissions by 2050?

To sum up, Net-zero has been one of the most influential concepts in uniting the global governments and corporations against the increase in temperature. However, a critical perspective needs to be taken, not for fighting against mitigation efforts, but to encourage them and guide them towards a credible and ambitious sustainability transition.


[i] ESG Latam. (2021). “Net Zero: una oportunidad histórica de inversión”. ESG Latam. Retrieved from: bit.ly/3ieGaPR.

[ii] Robert Watson, James Dyke and Wolfang Knorr. (2021, April 22). “Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap. The Conversation. Retrieved from: bit.ly/3rfehLx.

[iii] Duncan McLaren. (2021, September 30). “The problem with net-zero emissions targets”. CarbonBrief. Retrieved from: bit.ly/3rdq0tQ.

[iv] Frédéric Simon (2021, May 18). “IEA criticised over growing share of bioenergy in net-zero scenario”. Euractiv. Retrieved from: bit.ly/3ijbj4m.

[v] Richard Black, Steve Smith and Thomas Hale. (2021, May 10). “Net zero: despite the greenwash, it’s vital for tackling climate change”. The Conversation. Retrieved from: bit.ly/3emgHTa.

[vi] “German climate change law violates rights, court rules”. (2021, April 29). BBC. Retrieved from: bbc.in/3ihAa8Y.

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