• Krista Kurth, Ph.D.

Making Sense of the World’s Climate Targets

Why it’s important to urge our leaders to up their climate commitments.


Image by Daniel O'Donnell, Unsplash

With the next UN Climate Summit coming up this year, you may hear more about climate targets and commitments and wonder what the many terms describing global climate targets mean. Net zero, carbon neutral, negative emissions, 350 parts per million, zero emissions, Paris agreement, 1.5% aligned, and climate neutral are a few of the terms being bandied about.


Are they different terms for the same thing? And what exactly are we aiming to achieve and by when?


Let me answer some of those questions.


What Do All the Different Climate Target Terms Mean?

The terms mentioned above are similar in that they set targets for the world to aim towards in turning the climate crisis around. However, each one has a different definition. Here they are in order of increasing ambition.

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Carbon Neutral: According to Net Zero Climate, this is when a company has produced no net increase in the global emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) they emit into the atmosphere. They achieve this when they have accounted for all GHG from operations and then offset them by reducing emissions elsewhere. This is one of the least ambitious targets. There are no requirements for organizations to comply with the goals of the Paris Agreement and there is less stringent treatment of carbon offsets.


Net Zero: The Net Zero Climate group defines this target as when global “greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by removal out of the atmosphere.” We don’t add to global warming. Advocates for Net Zero believe that it will be too difficult to reduce all emissions to zero before 2050. However, they also state that we need to maintain this state continuously and permanently, which is called hard net zero.


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Climate Neutrality: The European Parliament defines this as “having a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks.” It is essentially the same as Net Zero, with a target of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions being counterbalanced by carbon sequestration. However, experts are still discussing which emissions countries can offset under this definition.


Paris Climate Agreement Target: Below 2 Degrees: The 2015 Paris Agreement, “a legally binding international treaty on climate change,” set a global goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels, preferably 1.5 °C (2.7 °F). The agreement called for reducing emissions as soon as possible before the 2nd half of the 21st Century. The language in the Paris Agreement implies that Net Zero is what the world has agreed upon.


“Carbon Law: An international team of researchers led by Johan Rockström proposed halving emissions every decade. Their carbon roadmap, inspired by Moore’s Law in the computer industry, which states that computer processors double in power about every two years, limits global warming to below 2˚C. They suggest that cities, industries and countries reduce emissions by 2030 while building technology to remove carbon in the 2040s. They say that their roadmap “ensures that the greatest efforts to reduce emissions happens sooner not later and reduces the risk of blowing the remaining global carbon budget to stay below 2°C.”

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1.5 °C Increase Limit: Many climate experts, including Climate Reality, think that 2˚C limit is too high. They conclude that 1.5 °C is the point at which climate impact goes from destructive to catastrophic—when “many natural systems cross dangerous points of no return, triggering lasting changes and transforming life as we know it.” They warn we need to do everything we can to keep warming below 1.5 °C on average across the globe. The climate crisis is already here and that we can’t afford to wait to reach this target. We must cut GHG emissions in half by 2030.


Negative Emissions: The Climate Dictionary states that this is when natural or technological methods of capturing and sequestering carbon remove GHG permanently from the atmosphere. Advocates for this target argue that reducing GHG is not enough. We must remove them, particularly since getting some industry emissions to zero, like aviation, may not be possible. The goal here is to remove more greenhouse gases than we emit. The Energy and Climate Intelligence site claims we need negative emissions to sustain a 1.5 °C. Currently, the only greenhouse gas for which negative emissions are workable at scale is carbon dioxide. We also need to reduce and remove other gases, like methane and nitrous oxide.


350 PPM: Dr Hansen, one pioneer of climate science, and many other experts, claim that the world needs to reduce atmospheric CO2 to less than 350 parts per million (ppm) to limit global temperature close to the Holocene range. He says that 1.5 °C is too high a target since it’s warmer than any time in the current era. Today, according to 350.org, CO2 levels are above 415 ppm and the world is adding over 2 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. With this amount of carbon in the atmosphere, global temperatures have already warmed by about 1.0 °C, leading to significant impacts.


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Zero Emissions or Absolute Zero: The Net Zero Climate group states that “Zero Emissions and Absolute Zero are two terms that imply that no greenhouse gases are released by a company, industry, or nation. Under this definition, no offsets or balancing of residual emissions with removals are used. The phrase absolute zero reflects a state in which there are no negative emissions technologies used to balance ongoing emissions.” While some companies and industries may achieve zero emissions, it is unlikely that the world will achieve absolute zero. Yet, some in the climate field, like the Race to Zero campaign, advocate focusing on this ambitious target with a goal of getting governments to up their commitments at the global climate meeting later this year (COP26). The goal is zero carbon economy.


How Much by When?

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Given the varying targets above, you might wonder what the World is aiming for when it comes to cutting emissions, and by when. The timeline part of the question is easier to answer than how much.


When: According to Bill McKibben, the Climate Expert and co-founder of 350.org, in a recent New Yorker article, the global consensus is converging on 2050 as the target date by which we need to have transitioned to a carbon-neutral economy. While the climate crisis won’t be over by the middle of the century, we will be at a turning point.


Another crucial milestone in the global effort to keep temperatures in check is the year 2030, by which they say we need to cut GHG emissions at least in half. McKibben says that while many pieces are now in place for the world to take rapid action, we will need to step outside our political and economic comfort zones to achieve that goal. For humanity to have a chance, we must end the trajectory of rising emissions this decade.


The Breakthrough Energy group, co-founded by Bill Gates, puts some specific numbers on this target. They say that “every year, we add 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. If we’re going to avoid a climate disaster, we have to get from 51 billion to zero in just 30 years.” On top of this, experts expect energy demand to increase 50% and world population to reach 10 billion by 2100. So, as the Breakthrough Energy site says, “we don’t just need to get to zero. We need to do it while bringing more products and services to more people in more places.”

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How Much: the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels, preferably 1.5 °C (2.7 °F), is what the world has said it’s working towards.


The issue, however, is that country commitments to this goal are voluntary, and the pledges made, and actions taken to date are not large enough for us to reach the agreed upon goal. The latest The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, which Secretary-General António Guterres introduced at U.N. headquarters in New York in February 2021, urges the world to make peace with nature, increase ambition and action on climate disruption, and speed up the change to carbon neutrality.


Guterres said that on our current trajectory, if we don’t take significant action now, we may see temperature rise of at least 3°C this century. He called on every country, city, financial institution and company around the world, to commit to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. To do this, countries will need to strengthen their pledges significantly under the Paris Agreement to transform energy systems, land use, agriculture, forest protection, urban development, infrastructure and lifestyles.

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How much do these commitments need to increase? A recent study, co-authored by Adrian Raftery from the University of Washington, suggests that countries need to ramp up pledges by 80 percent over what they have already pledged under the Paris Agreement. They built increasing commitments over time into the Paris accord. But they postponed the latest milestone in 2020 when the pandemic hit.


Another study, published late last year by the U.N. Environment Program, stated that nations would need to “roughly triple” their current emissions-cutting pledges to limit the Earth’s warming to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F). To reach the safer goal of 1.5 °C (2.7 °F), countries would have to increase their commitments fivefold.

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The good news is that global heads of state are already promising to reach carbon neutrality by mid-century or facing pressure to show up at the UN Climate Summit with more ambitious pledges. Over 125 countries, representing over two-thirds of global emissions, have either adopted or are discussing a goal of reaching net zero emissions by the middle of the century. And the United States, which hasn’t yet announced a new commitment, is likely to pledge a goal of net zero emissions by 2050.


Guterres continues to urge nations to commit to net-zero emissions and create credible plans to achieve them by mid-century. He also reminds us that everyone has a role to play in making peace with the earth and creating a carbon neutral economy. He encourages us to express ourselves and act environmentally responsibly.

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As the world prepares for the next UN Climate Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021, I encourage you to express yourselves in your communities. Urge your local, regional, and national leaders to up their commitments to halve emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2050. Tell them how important it is to make 2021 the defining year for climate.


I wish you all the best in your efforts to keep global temperatures below 1.5 °C.


Krista/Eco-Omi

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I am deeply committed to living a green life and supporting global action to create a sustainable future where everyone has enough, all communities are healthy and safe, and the environment is preserved for generations to come. As a Senior Fellow at Green America's Center for Sustainability Solutions (GACSS), this blog is one way I am contributing to a sea change in our response to the climate crisis. Read more.

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