With Joe Biden in the White House, 2021 could be the year the world embraces net zero:
but universities still have work to do to turn a trendy phrase into meaningful action to halt
the climate crisis.
If it weren’t for Covid-19, the annual UN climate conference would be taking place right now
in Glasgow. As it is, that meeting has been rescheduled to November 2021 and the UK
government, as host, still seems to be casting around for the big theme. But with the US
joining all other G7 countries aiming for net zero emissions or Xi
Jinping committing China to carbon neutrality by 2060, hundreds of companies joining the
‘Race to Zero’, the answer is increasingly obvious: this is the Year of Net Zero.
Is this the beginning of the end of the climate crisis? Let’s hope it is at least the end of an
agonisingly protracted beginning. But to stick with the Churchillian analogies, wars aren’t
won by evacuations, and global warming won’t stop with declarations – particularly
declarations about an ill-defined target 30 years off in the future. How many of the
countries, companies and cities committing to net zero have thought through exactly what
it means beyond an ambitious-sounding climate goal?
That said, in these gloom-ridden times, we must remind ourselves there is a lot to celebrate
here. Only 15 years ago, I gave a talk highlighting the need to limit cumulative carbon
emissions – and hence achieve net zero to stop global warming – at “Stabilisation 2005”, a
workshop convened by Tony Blair.
At that time, the goals of climate policy were very different. The clue is in the workshop
name: stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent
dangerous climate change, and contraction and convergence of emissions per person to
whatever rate that implied.
The problem in 2005 was that climate science was, and still is, struggling to pin down a
“safe” stabilisation concentration. It turns out that the long-term warming resulting from a
given concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is worryingly uncertain. But much more
certain is the response to cumulative emissions. Every tonne of carbon dioxide we emit
causes approximately the same amount of warming as every other tonne, unless it is
scrubbed out again. Which means the long-term sustainable rate of net emissions of carbon
dioxide that we have to contract and converge to is… zero.
The world looks very different now, and while everyone tends to focus on historically high-
emitting western countries, most of the credit for the change should go elsewhere. For the
UK to increase the ambition of our climate targets from the 80% reduction agreed in 2008 to
100% now was a big deal, but in a sense it was more of the same (although that final 20%
will prove particularly interesting). For China and India to accept, in the Paris Agreement,
that the 250-year-old practice of dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere was going to
have to come to an end, only a few short decades after they had joined the ranks of carbon-
dioxide-dumpers, was absolutely transformative.
But there is still a lot to be done, including by the world’s universities helping everyone
understand what net zero means, and what it will take to get there. The net in net zero is an
acknowledgment that we need to stop global warming before the world stops generating
greenhouse gas emissions. But how much of the work should it do? And which emissions
should we be netting out? Is planting trees to enable your customers to “drive carbon
neutral”, for example, the best use of the limited carbon capacity of the biosphere?
Oxford Net Zero is a four-year initiative, launching today, to help the world achieve net zero:
we will focus not on the immediate challenge of bending the emissions curve downwards,
important though that is, but on the end-game. The last 20% of emissions that arise from
activities so valuable that no conceivable carbon price will squeeze them out. How we
balance, and govern, the drive to reduce emissions with the inevitable need to take carbon
dioxide back out of the atmosphere. It’s a many-faceted challenge, and this support from
the Strategic Research Fund is allowing us to bring together colleagues from Geography,
Earth Sciences, Zoology and Plant Sciences, Anthropology, Physics, Law, Government and
Business to address it in a coherent way.
Many of the issues we’ll be thinking about will be coming close to home, as the University is
also stepping up with an ambitious new Sustainability Strategy, currently out for
consultation: make sure to have your say: https://sustainability.admin.ox.ac.uk/consultation
Above all, Oxford Net Zero is about how we balance the needs and interests of different
regions of the world today, and between present and future generations, through this great
transition. Having played our part in defining this challenge, we now want to step up to help
everyone meet it.
School of Geography and the Environment & Department of Physics, University of Oxford
Director, Oxford Net Zero