"In Downing Street, when the mood is dour, attention gravitates towards COP26: the bright green star on the government’s uncertain horizon. It’s the subject which animates the Prime Minister most these days," reported Katy Balls in the Spectator's cover story last week.
You can see why the Prime Minister feels he can follow up his Brexit deal with another history-making moment. On the home front, as I wrote last time, things are moving on climate. And, largely thanks to President Biden, the same is true at the international level. But the PM should worry that any breakthroughs he hopes to take credit for at COP26 could be drowned out by all the greenwashing. This, along with the uphill struggle over money for developing countries, is one of the biggest obstacles in his way.
With net zero claims coming from the likes of Bolsonaro, Shell and Heathrow, scepticism is justified. After all, the International Energy Agency just reported that coal and gas use is set to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, driving a massive surge in emissions.
How can this be happening in a context where two thirds of the global economy is covered by more than 4000 net zero targets?
"You can agree these far away targets because they're so far away", Tony Blair told Michael Liebrich in his podcast. It's the argument that Greta and her fellow youth strikers have been making for some time. But it’s a recent piece by three prominent climate scientists, including the former IPCC chief Bob Watson, that has garnered special attention. It questions whether net zero is in fact "a dangerous trap" that has "licensed a recklessly cavalier ‘burn now, pay later’ approach”.
Oxford's Steve Smith points out there’s little evidence of the concept leading to delay. Instead, there’s plenty showing that countries with a net zero target are more likely to raise their near-term ambition. (You need only look at the UK experience to see how net zero is driving big moves like phasing out new sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2030.) Perhaps it’s more accurate to call the piece a “critique on the lack of action”, with UCL's Simon Lewis noting the irony that it should land at the very moment Biden announced sweeping short-term measures to slash America's carbon footprint.
As James Murray beautifully put it, "Where is the upside for the environmental movement in a blanket attack on targets that are ultimately aiming to stabilise the climate ASAP? You’ve managed to get most everyone in power to agree to the effective full decarbonisation of the economy within 30 years so that the only debate is about how to achieve that goal, and now you want to torch the concept that helped deliver that rare bit of progress?"
But the viral success of the Watson piece, and its amplification by Greta, speaks to the high levels of widespread cynicism and mistrust that apparent progress might just be greenwash, which is exacerbated by the fact it very often is exactly that, and often this gets blended into a impenetrable soup of complicated acronyms, differing baselines, and confusing claims and counterclaims about what does and doesn't constitute progress.
Ultimately, the Paris Agreement will only carry the weight required to move markets away from coal, oil and gas, and into clean energy and nature protection, if the plans that governments, cities and companies bring forward are credible enough that investors move their money accordingly. Equally, the resilience of political support for tough Net Zero decisions in places like the House of Commons and the US Congress will rely on confidence that other major economies are not just grabbing momentary headlines but actually following through. How will Johnson persuade his backbenchers, or for that matter other world leaders and transnational corporations, to take what are often difficult decisions if they don't think their counterparts' pledges are anything more than paper thin?
All this underlines the importance of the so-called "rule book" in the government negotiations but also the need for robust and accessible benchmarks to help financiers, along with journalists, policy-makers and the public, distinguish the bullshit from the rest. Many are watching closely what emerges from the "Science Based Targets Initiative" (SBTI) that has become the main big business forum for setting corporate climate pledges, particularly since this is a benchmark for COP26 sponsorship. A review triggered by the UN's Race to Zero will be important, especially since Mark Carney's initiative with banks managing trillions in assets will draw on these criteria.
The lawyers at Client Earth have produced a briefing on what they think cuts the mustard, and ECIU is working with Oxford University to track commitments and help people separate the real from the fake. This excellent piece in Nature journal led by Joeri Rogelj at Imperial College does a good job examining the key questions that need to be answered.
This little stir in the climate community over "Net Zero" should be a warning to the government that if it fails to distance itself from firms and initiatives that lack integrity, transparency and detailed delivery plans, backed up by interim targets and proper investment, and unless they have a credible such plan of their own, it may not matter much what else they do. As this excellent long-read from Paul Waugh explained, next month's anticipated Net Zero review from Chancellor Rishi Sunak will be a key moment for Downing Street to demonstrate they get this.