Will we get to net zero fast enough, and how will the climate respond?

A decade ago, the term “net zero” was arcane jargon. Today, it is the key goal of the fight against climate change and a familiar talking point across the world.

The concept is straightforward. In the words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): “Net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are achieved when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period.”

It is also easy to trace the concept’s rise to prominence. Once the need for net-zero emissions to halt rising temperatures was established, it made its policy debut in the 2015 Paris Agreement. It then exploded into public consciousness following a 2018 IPCC report explicitly stating that the world must reach net zero by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

The UK soon became the first major economy to come up with a net-zero emissions pledge. Now, most countries, including China, the US and India – the three largest emitters – have made such pledges of some sort.

What is less clear, however, is whether all these targets are strong enough to get us to net zero fast enough – and what happens to the climate once we do reach our goal.

Many net-zero pledges are “poor”, according to the Climate Action Tracker project. Often countries’ plans lack achievable interim steps or leave out important sectors of the economy. That suggests most deadlines will be missed. But reaching net zero 50 years from now, for instance, isn’t enough, says Amanda Levin at the Natural Resources…

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