Net zero and low-carbon transformation: why targets are not enough

This week, the UN Global Climate Summit meets in New York, calling global leaders to describe how they will meet the challenge of disruptive climate change.

The long term target for countries is to reach net zero emissions by 2050. This is a challenge for all countries, including in the industrialised world, not least in the UK. Action to create fair, sustainable low-carbon economies implies radical change – not just adjusting existing practices or structures, but transforming national industrial strategies and approaches.

One of the big problems with focusing on net zero as a target is that it can partly be achieved by offsetting emissions. STEPS research over several years has demonstrated the problems with the mechanisms and practices involved in offsetting. Relying on offsetting would also miss an opportunity to explore deeper structural transformations for the UK’s economy and livelihoods.

STEPS co-director Ian Scoones commented on the net zero target and the UK’s commitments alongside other researchers in a recent piece for One Earth (part of the prestigious family of publications linked to the journal Cell). In his commentary, he makes the case that setting a target is not enough – instead a wider transformation is required, and this means addressing politics.

“The announcement that the UK has committed to a net zero-carbon emissions target by 2050 is welcome, but with qualifications. It is too little, too late, is over-reliant on technological and market fixes, and doesn’t commit to a major structural transformation of the fossil fuel-dependent economy.

A key limitation is the focus on net emissions, as the UK can meet its target by buying offsets elsewhere. Experience of offset markets has been patchy, with communities elsewhere in the world taking on the burden. To meet the wider global challenge of climate change, the UK must commit to a zero-carbon economy at home.

Technological innovation and declining costs has accelerated the renewable energy revolution – revolutionising the possibilities for a low carbon future. However, to occur on the scale required needs government support, fostered through a state-led, green industrial strategy, linked to low-carbon housing, transport and agricultural policies.

A ‘green new deal’ requires substantial investment and an overhaul of existing infrastructure, which will in turn generate employment and improve livelihoods. Yet it will not happen just through setting a target – a major political commitment to an alternative future is required. Challenging the power of incumbent interests means articulating a progressive vision for a green transformation, led by citizens and supported by the state.

Unless fossil fuel-dependent economies undergo a major structural transformation, climate change will accelerate, with devastating results. The challenge is to seek a new pathway beyond fossil fuel capitalism; setting targets is not enough.” 

Further reading

Carbon offsetting:

The politics of low-carbon transformations:

On the need to seek a broader political economy/ecology approach to climate change, read the recent collective paper in Climate and Development, Beyond technical fixes: climate change and the great derangement. See also the blog post by two of the authors, Andrea Nightingale and Lars Otto Naess: Climate change: how do we move beyond the ‘great derangement’?

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