By George Bailey
We are entering the critical decade of action for climate change. We have embarked on an unprecedented challenge of halving global carbon emissions by 2030 – a milestone we must meet if we are to achieve net zero by 2050 and the 1.5⁰C limit laid out in the 2016 Paris Agreement.
We’re already behind where we need to be. The latest UN Emissions Gap report states that due to slow progress, we now must cut global emissions by 7.6% per year for the next decade. Without further action, this target will increase to 15.5% each year from as early as 2025.
There is appetite for action, but there remains uncertainty about what to do to get there and this risks confusion. One way to accelerate action is agreeing a unifying definition of net zero. Once this is defined, agreeing what measurable success looks like in 2030 and by 2050 will be easier.
In recent years, we’ve seen countries, businesses, cities, local authorities and businesses – including WSP - set net zero targets and unveil strategies to meet them. Many will have used varying interpretations of what net zero means, how it should be measured and what should be included in the scope. Such an approach risks a situation of divide and conquer.
Thankfully, initiatives such as the United Nations’ ‘Race to Zero’ were set up to stop this risk of divergence. Race to Zero is seeking to pull credible global net zero initiatives under one roof and it is having success as we approach the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021. It is providing clarity on what science based and credible net zero plans must look like.
For example, businesses seeking to become a signatory of Race to Zero are required to go down the ‘Business Ambition for 1.5C’ route which is underpinned by the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi), or ‘The Climate Pledge’ route. In September 2020, the SBTi, published it’s ‘Foundations for science-based net-zero target setting in the corporate sector’ - this is essential reading, even for non-businesses.
The SBTi report has three key takeaways:
1. We need clarity and consistency on what net zero means
We all need to be talking the same language on net zero so that like-for-like comparisons can be made to facilitate informed decisions – whether for investors seeking to invest in ‘credible net zero’ businesses or net zero supplier selection to help meet our value chain targets.
2. We need to capture everything
Our value chains are often excluded from many net zero targets – these are known as Scope 3 emissions. They are the elephant in the room. For many companies, emissions released across the value chain make up most of a company’s footprint – in corporate real estate is estimated to be over 85%. Scope 3 emissions must be included in credible net zero plans.
3. We will need to utilise carbon ‘neutralisation’ or removal offsets
As part of our net zero journeys, we will be allowed to use credible removal offsets to mop up residual emissions. The huge investment in biological and technical schemes that enable removal offsets will create a global revolution in rewilding initiatives to restore nature, and will support innovations like Direct Air Carbon Capture (DACC).
A global standard for net zero is overdue. What should your organisation do to pre-empt this?
A global standard will allow organisations to be compared on a like-for-like basis and enable stakeholders to make informed decisions about investment and procurement based on those companies which are taking meaningful action. We are confident a global standard will be agreed, but in the meantime we should waste no time.
Cities, local authorities, organisations and businesses can pre-empt change by doing the following:
1. Identify the Race to Zero approved standard for your sector. For businesses this is the SBTi, for higher education this is Global Universities and Colleges for the Climate, for cities it is C40 Cities’ Deadline 2020
2. Measure your Green House Gas (GHG) emissions and set credible net zero targets through these standards
3. Validate your net zero target and seek recognised assurance for your GHG emissions’ footprint and reductions
4. Deliver meaningful, comparable reductions towards a 1.5⁰C limit on global warming, planning for 2⁰C is no longer going to be enough
5. Offset any residual emissions that you cannot yet avoid by using certified removal offsets – this is in line with the concept of ‘carbon neutralisation’ in the SBTi paper.
There is no time to waste
We are at a pivotal point in deciding what kind of future we want. The world is looking to the private sector to follow bold pledges with deliverable plans for action.
We must take coordinated action now to tackle carbon emissions so that we’re not faced with a 15.5% target as early as 2025. All of us have a role to play and we can all influence our professional and personal networks to enact real change.
As you reflect on the above, and look for optimism, we recommend you read ‘The Future We Choose’. Written by Christina Figueres, the inspirational figurehead who played a key role in the Paris Agreement in 2016, it is full of the can-do mindset that we will all need in the coming decade.
This article was written by George Bailey in WSP’s Sustainability Advisory team.