What the world needs now is… a net zero club

With just over eight months to go, we now have a new COP26 president in place and preparations for the biggest international summit the UK has ever hosted are in full swing. Alok Sharma has no easy task. The eyes of the world will be on Glasgow this November for the UN climate change conference.

Wind turbines in the North Sea, England
Wind turbines in the North Sea, England

Expectations are high, with climate change at the top of the political and public agenda. While positive trends on balance sheets and in the streets are building momentum for strong climate action, many of the largest national governments are still not where they need to be. The last major summit in Paris five years ago, which gave rise to an ambitious global agreement, was forged not just with the push of ambitious leaders but also under an Obama –Xi constellation.  

This year, we can expect that several large countries’ new pledges – their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – will fall short of what is needed to put the world on a “well below 2oC” path. With key political leaders distracted or actively hindering process, reaching an ambitious “ratchet” of climate ambition this year will be a huge challenge.

But this COP has to be a success. Since 2015, the urgency for the world to avert disastrous climate change has only become clearer. The UK finds itself in a significant position at a pivotal moment in history. This year of climate action will be the one that sets the path for the next decade of delivery. We need to pull every lever we can at every level, and there are many.

One of the most extraordinary trends since 2015 is that ‘net zero’ targets have gone viral. A number of leading companies have stated their intentions to reach net zero, although these will need to be verified. So have cities, including New York, London, Johannesburg, Tokyo, and Qingdao, as well as well as states and provinces like California and New South Wales. At the time of writing, 14 countries have net zero targets in law or policy. Two – Suriname and Bhutan – have already achieved it.

Remarkably, a new report from the London think tank ECIU shows that 49 percent of global GDP is already covered by cities, states, provinces and countries that either have net zero targets or are working toward them.

Many climate action leaders are now thinking how this groundswell of net zero targets can contribute to success at COP26. The idea of a ‘net zero club’ was extensively discussed at the ‘Countdown to COP’ conference recently. Together with the Blavatnik School of Government, we have today published a policy brief that lays out why and how the creation of such a coalition would make COP26 a success.

This club could align country leaders such as New Zealand, the UK and France, with less well known net zero champions such as Bhutan, Costa Rica and Sweden. It could include the EU, assuming it also sets a net zero goal. Crucially, it would see sub-national actors like Scotland and California and other members of the Under 2 Coalition, join New York and other world cities, globally via the C40 network and locally, in this country, via the UK100 network. It could also include the corporate leaders, like Unilever, Volkswagen, Microsoft, Google, and Ikea, which have set net zero goals.

Critically, a net zero club would be a ‘coalition of coalitions’, building on and linking together the work of existing platforms like Science Based Targets, the Under 2 Coalition, C40 cities, the Climate Neutrality Coalition, the Net Zero Asset Owners Alliance and others.

Bringing together such a powerful coalition of the willing would make visible the world’s direction of travel, signalling a dramatic economic shift and helping to ratchet up ambitions alongside the UNFCCC process, which involves only nation states.

A big benefit of this idea for the UK as host is that is does not have to start from scratch. At the last COP in Madrid, a Chile-led Climate Ambition Alliance was founded, whose members account for 18 per cent of the world’s emissions and a third of the world’s GDP.  The UK could take this and run with it, creating a beefed up version, building on it to get 50 per cent of global GDP signed up (or, as a stretch target, actors representing 50 per cent of global emissions).

And the beauty of this idea is that it has the potential to dramatically raise ambition over the next five years across economies. A UK-led net zero club (ideally with support from Italy) can continue its momentum, as the G7 and G20 in 2021 are taking place in the UK and Italy, respectively. Major countries and key actors not signed up will increasingly feel out of step if they witness the collective decarbonisation actions of others and see the economic and social benefits they yield.

A key task will be to convert those ‘working toward’ net zero to firm commitments. Major economies and actors are in the ‘working towards’ category, not the ‘committed’ category. This year is the chance for the UK’s COP26 presidency to play a major role in encouraging the laggards to strengthen their commitments.

To be a credible leader in setting the bar and the ambition for the world on climate action this year, the UK first needs to get its own house in order. Although we have set a net zero goal, we are not yet on track to meet it. Green Alliance has identified the five policies that could be implemented right now and we’re tracking progress this year against them.   A crucial early indicator of the government’s ambition will be the NDC it commits to. This must be based on net zero, not on the previous target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent.

If the UK gets it right, COP26 will not only be the biggest global summit the country has ever held, but it will also be the one that is remembered for building on the achievements of the Paris Agreement.

This post was originally published by Green Alliance.

Shaun Spiers is Executive Director at Green Alliance.

Thomas Hale is Associate Professor in Global Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government.

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