The World Is Moving Toward Net Zero Because of a Single Sentence

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The District of Columbia city council held a public hearing on Oct. 9, 2018, to discuss legislation that would halve the U.S. capital's greenhouse-gas pollution by 2032.

The bill had gathered momentum over the summer and fall, but received a turbo boost of support just one day prior, when the world's most authoritative climate-science body published a landmark report asking the world to do, essentially, exactly what D.C. was proposing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Global Warming of 1.5°C report said that, to have a shot at achieving the Paris Agreement's stretch goal of limiting warming to 1.5° Celsius above preindustrial levels, every nation must cut its carbon-dioxide emissions in half by 2030—and neutralize them by 2050.

"When the IPCC report dropped, you could feel the urgency. Everyone said we don't have any more time," said Anna Lising, now a senior climate advisor to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who at the time worked for the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment. Discussion of the bill "went from everyone being supportive to everyone acting with urgency." 

Two years later, eight of the 10 largest economies have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century—nine once President Joe Biden formalizes his campaign promise to do so. Twenty-nine countries, plus the European Union, have net-zero pledges for either CO₂ or all greenhouse gases, accounting for 14.5% of global emissions. Some 400 companies, including Microsoft, Unilever, Facebook, Ford, Nestle, Pepsi Co, and Brunswick Group, have signed on with the Business Ambition for 1.5°C pledge, which is built on the IPCC's analysis. (Bloomberg LP, publisher of Bloomberg Green, also signed the pledge.)

The portion of the report outlining the 2050 timeline was just a single sentence, and yet very few corners of the world have remained unaffected by it. If all these countries and companies (plus the hundreds of others that will have to join them for this to work) succeed in zeroing out their emissions in time, it may turn out to be the grammatical unit that saved the world. If not, it'll be remembered as the last, best warning we ignored before it was too late.

The World Is Moving Toward Net Zero Because of a Single Sentence

Like most statements the IPCC sets down, the most important sentence ever written is just terrible—clunky and jargon-filled. What it says, in English, is this: By 2030 the world needs to cut its carbon-dioxide pollution by 45%, and by midcentury reach “net-zero” emissions, meaning that any CO₂ still emitted would have to be drawn down in some way.

It may lack in poetry, but Daniel Yergin, author of The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations and vice chairman at corporate intelligence firm IHS Markit, acknowledged its influence. He pitted it against the formidable rival "all men are created equal." 

"I think you could say that is one of the most important sentences of the last few centuries," Yergin said. "It has provided an incredibly powerful traffic signal to tell you where things are going."

The half-by-2030, all-by-2050 guidance is keyed specifically to emissions of CO₂, by far the biggest contributor to warming. Methane, nitrous oxide, and several other gases together make up nearly a fourth of the problem, and goal-setters need to take this into account while they're slashing CO₂, said Kelly Levin, senior associate in the World Resources Institute's global climate program.

Many of these national net zero ambitions "are very much driven by the latest climate science," she said. But some nations must move faster than others.

"Countries with the highest emissions, greatest responsibility, and capability should adopt the most ambitious target time frames," Levin said. Not all of them have. Still others have yet to release details about their interim emissions objectives or to what extent their progress will depend on controversial mechanisms such as carbon offset credits and carbon removal technology, respectively.

But "the spirit of the Paris Agreement is to increase ambition continuously," Levin said, to bring the goal within reach.

Since the Clean Energy D.C. Act became law in early 2019, it has been joined by dozens of other national or subnational jurisdictions trying to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Another world historical sentence that may be on policymakers' minds as they work toward those goals, given the existential stakes of their work: "To be or not to be—that is the question."

Eric Roston writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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