Messaging needs to be leveraged to put pressure on holdout national governments to increase climate ambition
The messaging and diplomatic push for the ‘Race to Zero’ campaign launched on June 5, 2020 describes itself as an “international campaign for a healthy, resilient zero carbon recovery”, which “brings together an unprecedented coalition of net-zero emissions initiatives, covering 996 businesses, 458 cities, 24 regions, 505 universities and 36 of the biggest investors”.
This seems perilously close to the messaging around the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in 2019, which was itself built on the messaging approach of business-led movements such as the We Are Still In coalition.
This messaging for the campaign — carried out under the aegis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — seeks to emphasise the potential for non-state actors (businesses, investors, cities, and other sub-national entities) to raise climate ambition. The current campaign refers to these as ‘real economy actors’, noting they “cover just over half the gross domestic product, a quarter of global CO2 emissions and over 2.6 billion people”.
As a substitute for real ambition led by national governments — especially major polluters such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, the European Union and increasingly China — this approach tends to fall well short.
The New York Summit was noted more for youth-led protests than for true advances in climate ambition. Business coalitions are much needed, but they sometimes obfuscate more than clarify climate action.
This is particularly because net-zero is a nebulous term. Businesses often interpret it as limited to their own operations and refuse to consider the emissions impact of consumers using their products (think of a ‘zero emissions as manufactured’ vehicle, which still uses fossil fuel once sold).
They also often use ‘net-zero’ targets to increase their consumption of carbon credits or offsets which, in current form, are bad for the climate.
The leaders of this campaign — UN High-Level Climate Champions Nigel Topping (from the United Kingdom) and Gonzalo Muñoz (from Chile) are presumably not unaware of these limitations.
The same goes for the president of the 26th Conference of the Parties (Alok Sharma from the UK) and COP25 President Carolina Schmidt (from Chile), who are launching the campaign today.
Diplomatic efforts have been made to re-emphasise the role of national ambition, especially by getting 120 countries and the European Union to commit to raising the ambition in their national targets in 2020.
The list of countries omits major emitters like China, US, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. But to its credit, it includes important G20 economies like Canada, Mexico, Argentina, France, Germany, Italy and the UK, apart from the EU.
In addition, there are some minimum criteria developed by Oxford University, to maintain quality control over non-state actors’ net-zero targets. On the positive side, this includes limiting the use of carbon offsetting or credits.
Still unresolved, however, is the issue of ‘scope’ — that is, whether businesses have a responsibility to limit emissions beyond their own operations.
As a campaign, ‘Race to Zero’ represents a modest step forward in messaging. It cannot be confused for actual action comparable to the scale of the climate crisis.
This messaging needs to be leveraged to put pressure on holdout national governments to increase climate ambition.
We need to cut global emissions by 7.6 per cent each year for the next ten years, to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century.
That will not happen simply by generating optimism around technology or new business practices. We will have to go beyond, using the political capital of business and other stakeholders to force new policies more in line with democratic consensus.
After all, as the campaign notes, two-thirds of those polled worldwide are in favour of prioritising climate concerns in the economic recovery from the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). It is past time for businesses, investors and policy to catch up.
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