Net-Zero Emissions Goals & Their Importance to Clean Energy

Overhead view of abstract water-like footprints in the middle of a jungle

To have any hope of staving off climate calamities resulting from exceeding 1.5 °C global warming, it is paramount governments and the private sector make a coordinated effort to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner and make society more equitable through the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

According to recent climate research, failing to limit warming and reach net-zero emissions—eliminating greenhouse gas output or balancing any emissions via removal processes—would create “unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans,” reads the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Exceeding this warming threshold would exacerbate global hunger, extinction, and drought, and worsen the climate change-induced disasters already upon us.

While many companies have pledged net-zero targets, the problem continues to go largely unabated. Already warming 1.2 °C since pre-industrial levels, the planet currently reflects significant devastation: record-high global sea levels, drastic increases in temperature, unusual weather patterns, and extreme heat dubbed a “global health risk factor,” among other global warming byproducts.  

As the window to stave off environmental calamity shrinks, it is critical that governments and corporations take urgent climate action, seek lasting alternative energy solutions, and unanimously enact the strategies for global peace and sustainability set by the UN’s SDGs.


What Are Net-Zero Emissions?

Reaching net-zero emissions—equilibrium between greenhouse gas emissions added to and removed from the atmosphere—requires permanent reduction, or balancing via removal, according to an analysis from University of Oxford-based interdisciplinary research initiative Oxford Net Zero.  

It should be noted that net-zero is not synonymous with carbon neutrality, which is achieved when net carbon dioxide contribution is zero and any continuous emissions are balanced by proportional removal, according to Oxford Net Zero. That said, while some corporations might claim carbon neutrality, they could still be far from reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emission goals.

Global Net-Zero Responses

Developing Countries Lead in Slashing Emissions

While several nations have pledged to mitigate carbon emissions and global warming, there are others that remain on the sidelines.

According to the UN, more than 70 countries have set net-zero targets. Scientists estimate emissions must be reduced by nearly 50% from 2020 levels by 2030 if governments are going to limit warming to 1.5 °C and prevent environmental catastrophe. As of April 8, 2022, more than 1,300 companies have signed the UN’s “Business Ambition for 1.5°C” campaign, which includes a pledge to reach net zero.

Several developing countries with historically low-carbon footprints such as Suriname, Guyana, and Benin have already achieved net-zero emissions, according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit’s (ECIU) Net Zero Tracker. Spain, France, Germany, and Canada, among others, have enshrined net-zero-oriented declarations into law. However, other countries, including the United States, have yet to formally codify net-zero pledges, which makes the already herculean task of transforming economies and significantly reducing emissions that much more difficult.

Corporations Struggle to Uphold Pledges

Meanwhile, dozens of companies across the world have made net-zero pledges, but reaching those goals is proving a challenge.

A recent report titled “Road to Zero Emissions” from nonprofit As You Sow assesses 55 of the largest U.S. companies and evaluates net-zero targets and progress, concluding: only a few (Microsoft Corporation, PepsiCo, and Ecolab) could say they were in the A and A- range; Google (Alphabet Inc.) and Apple were graded B and B+ respectively; only four (including Prologis Inc. and Abbott Laboratories) were in the C range; while around half of the remaining firms held a D ranking; and the other half failed.

Some major companies have stated publicly they plan on significantly reducing emissions in the decades to come.

While Google claimed to have become the first major carbon-neutral company in 2007, this does not necessarily equate to it reaching net-zero emissions. As reported in the aforementioned Dezeen article, Google is “carbon neutral in terms of purchasing renewable energy to offset all of our consumption and eliminating our legacy carbon,” reads a statement from Robin Bass, Google real estate and workplace services and sustainability programs lead.

Meanwhile, Amazon has pledged to reach net zero by 2040 and operate on 100-percent renewable energy by 2025, but recently earned an F in As You Sow’s report.  

Of course, the energy industry, specifically those reliant on fossil fuel and coal, can have the greatest impact on emissions reductions.

The Significant Roles of Fuel & Transportation Corporations

Recent research underscores the need for fossil fuel giants and heavily reliant industries, such as transportation, to transition to clean energy, and make various net-zero goals more realistic.

More than half (51%) of carbon emissions since 1751 can be traced back to only 100 active fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell, and BHP Billiton, among others, according to a 2017 analysis from comprehensive dataset the Carbon Majors Database.

Alternative energy sources such as Canadian Solar decreased “company-wide carbon intensity” by 20% between 2017 and 2020, a figure they intend to further lower by 37% by 2025, according to its “2020 ESG Sustainability Report.” 

However, although some publicize net-zero initiatives, lack of tangible progress, as evidenced in As You Sow’s aforementioned assessment, raises questions about potential so-called “greenwashing,” in which corporations publicize marketing strategies aimed at convincing the public of their environmental friendliness for PR value, according to Time.

For instance, ExxonMobil, Shell, and BHP Billiton have each pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, as aforementioned, ExxonMobil failed As You Sow’s report evaluating net-zero targets and progress, and Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to reduce emissions by 45 percent compared to 2019 levels in response to a lawsuit brought by the organization Friends of the Earth.

Furthermore, Shell plans to continue natural gas production, but offset carbon emissions through tree planting as well as carbon capture and storage practices, according to Down to Earth, a magazine based in New Delhi, India. This gesture has become increasingly “recognized as problematic and a strategy to simply delay near-term emissions cuts,” reads the piece. Shell’s initiative also ​​excludes its petrochemicals business from planning, and neglects to address methane emissions, a significant contributor to global warming.

Meanwhile, in the transportation industry, comprising about one-fifth of worldwide carbon emissions, Delta Airlines said it wants to be the first carbon-neutral airline by 2050. One of its rivals, United Airlines Holdings, has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but currently lacks a reporting mechanism or plan in place, according to the ECIU’s Net Zero Tracker.

Given the heavy role fossil fuels and transportation industries play in carbon emissions, those most responsible for the dire state of global warming can have the most sizable impact.

While several of these major corporations have publicized net-zero targets, it is crucial they implement supportive mechanisms, plans, and alternative energy solutions to achieve these objectives or minimally, counteract output.

Seeking Alternatives: Clean Energy & Climate Action

As global conflicts and the COVID-19 pandemic’s aftershocks continue exploiting pre-existing inequities and disproportionately affecting underprivileged populations, it is clear that a coordinated response to seek permanent clean energy and climate action solutions is vital.

According to UN-partnered International Energy Agency (IEA)’s “Renewables 2021” report, worldwide use of solar panels, wind turbines, biofuels, and other renewable energy sources will “grow faster than ever in the next five years.” Renewable electricity capacity will increase by 60% compared to 2020 levels, total offshore wind capacity will more than triple by 2026, and emerging renewable heat initiatives continue to gain momentum, it continues. However, despite the growth in clean energy, many of these trends still fall short of meeting the IEA’s net-zero goals by 2050.

“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F); without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible,” Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III Jim Skea says in a recent UN climate report.

Unless actionable steps are taken to halve global emissions by 2030, scientists have forecasted “unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the statement, adding: “This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies. We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree (Celsius, or 2.7-degrees Fahrenheit) limit” agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

In its climate action initiative, the UN says climate change measures should be embedded into national policies to strengthen resilience and adaptability. Centering a government’s broader agenda around climate can also improve climate change awareness, education, and help detect early warning signs, according to the UN.

On a global scale, it is paramount nations and the private sector embrace urgent and multifaceted climate action solutions, via initiatives directed toward climate change planning, management, education, and adaptation, while adhering to the UN’s blueprints for sustainability and counteracting inequities.

“We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future,” adds IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee in the UN’s report. “I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries. There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective. If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.”

UN SDGs: Strategies for Climate Relief

In 2015, the UN adopted a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to accelerate the transition to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and reverse socioeconomic disadvantages exacerbated by the climate crisis.

These 17 interconnected objectives prioritize sustainability by 2030: no poverty; zero hunger; good health and well-being; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation, and infrastructure; reduced inequalities; responsible consumption and production; climate action; life below water; life on land; peace, justice, and strong institutions; and partnerships.

Governments and for-profit organizations can urgently leverage their tremendous power to impact sustainability through aligning policies with these initiatives (formatting climate adaptation plans, financing renewable energy, promoting sustainable agriculture, and more), as well as by employing sustainability data insights into real-time decision making.

Given its considerable impact on global economies, the private sector can play a major role in shaping a more sustainable future by helping with the transition to plant-based diets, investing in clean transportation options, conserving water, and lessening corporate pollution, among other practices.

As time dwindles to create meaningful environmental protection solutions, it is essential that countries and the private sector mobilize to coordinate corporate and governmental strategies within these blueprints for climate relief.

From protecting marine life to accelerating action on renewable heat and transport energies, these action items embody the essential guidelines and changes necessary to have any hope of securing what the IPCC’s Lee refers to as a “liveable future.”

Data-Informed Sustainability Solutions

Without a clear and coordinated response from global and corporate leaders, negative impacts to human and animal health, food scarcity, water supply, and more will persist.

With scientists warning our ecosystems are being “pushed beyond their ability to adapt,” according to the 2022 IPCC report, there’s little time to waste.

To create comprehensive action plans that heed the sustainability blueprints set forth by the SDGs, it is critical world leaders and corporations utilize available real-time data solutions.

Through leveraging unstructured data technology, nations can thoroughly assess their sustainability postures, identify changing sustainability trends, and quickly implement strategies to align growth and well-being with the SDG initiatives.

Citibeats leverages ethical AI for social understanding, gathering and analyzing unstructured data from social media, blog comments, forums, and more to generate real-time, actionable insights.

In addition to the Sustainability Monitor, Citibeats also offers a subscription-based Social Risk Monitoring software solution. Schedule a demo today to learn more.