23: Assessing the status and trends of net zero target setting

05 October 2022

In this episode, John Lang, Founder, Consult Climate and Net Zero Tracker lead, joins Global Sustainability/ESG Partner Anna-Marie Slot.

John covers the importance of data around delivery of Net Zero targets, the role of G7 countries and why leaders from the rich world must keep their promises to the developing world even in these bumpy times.

John also shares his Net Zero anagram and what he's hoping to see be discussed at COP27. To remind yourself of what was discussed at COP26, click here to view John's visual guide.

This is the twenty-third episode in our 30 For Net Zero 30 series. In each episode, Ashurst Global Sustainability/ESG Partner Anna-Marie Slot speaks with climate action champions across the globe about real steps to take now towards 2030 goals.

The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to. Listeners should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.


Anna-Marie Slot:

Hello and welcome to our latest episode of 30 for Net Zero 30. I'm Anna-Marie Slot, global sustainability and ESG partner here at Ashurst, and we are speaking with 30 change-makers around the globe about the actions to take now to deliver on 2030 goals. Today I'm very pleased to be joined by John Lang who has many projects on the go at once. John leads the Net Zero Tracker, a joint consortium project tracking net zero targets as well as running his own consultancy. John, given all the different irons you have in the fire, maybe you could give us a little more background about what you do and where you spend your time.

John Lang:

Yeah, no worries. Firstly, thanks for having me, Anna-Marie. It's a pleasure to be here. Yeah, so my day job is running or leading the Net Zero Tracker on behalf of four international organisations. So, I work for the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit here in London and we work with Oxford Net Zero, the NewClimate Institute and the Data-Driven EnviroLab in the US. What we do is we track net zero targets, net zero targets of countries, of regions, cities, and big companies, so the largest 2,000 publicly listed companies in the world, and essentially what we're trying to do is increase transparency. There's a big avoid in reporting globally around what actually matters for net zero. So, what we try and do is we try and bring in indicators of whether there's an interim target or whether an entity is wanting to rely on offsets for example.

And so, we try and make that data uniform so that then our stakeholders, our audience, be it journalists, be it activists, or be it the lay public can actually get a good grasp on what an entity's doing and what it's not, and it also increases comparability. And so, essentially, we're trying to activate the accountability cycle globally across all these entities. The best way to think about it, the tracker, I suppose is in terms of our theory of change and what we're trying to achieve, and we're trying to increase peer pressure through scrutiny, and we're also looking to introduce something called fear pressure. So, doing deep dives on entities to uncover whether they're greenwashing or whether they're genuinely trying to transition to net zero, and we're also trying to surface good practise where we find it. We don't like to call it best practise because best practise only exists theoretically at the moment unfortunately so we can only zero in on good practise.

The ultimate goal for the Net Zero Tracker is to be the mothership of net zero. So, what we want to do is we want to not only do this scrutinising exercise, but we would also like to signpost to other initiatives, other campaigns out there that are providing context and information, not just trackers, on net zero and the decarbonization challenge. And then just, sorry, just to mention the other irons in the fire, Anna-Marie, yes, I do. I run a consultancy and I specialise in communicating visually climate change policy and science to the public, and so, that's probably my favourite pastime to be honest. I really do enjoy doing those infographics.


Excellent. So, a lot of projects on the go at once. I think in some ways it's quite funny that we're here on a podcast when in actual fact so much of your time is spent visualising for people things like the IPCC report and what that actually means visually which some great work that you've done around that, and I think really that education piece, when people say, "I don't know what that really means," when you have those infographics, that's super helpful as people are talking about it. I guess obviously you've been at this for a little while now. What's the shifts that you're seeing in people's interaction with this or in people's uptake on what you're putting out?


I think there's growing recognition of the importance of climate change now. It's not just a fringe issue. I don't want to take anything away from plastics in the ocean for example, but that's a solvable issue. Climate change is the most attractable issue that we've ever come up against as a human species, and I think there's growing recognition of that. It's not an issue. It's an era that we're going into, and also I think moving from if climate change is real to how we actually address it is has been a really important shift. That's not occurred over the last two years or so, but it has been an incremental shift over the last 10, 15 years. So, that's a really positive starting place, and today 90% of the economy is covered by a net zero target and that is huge. I think only two years ago it was 16%.

So, with the likes of the US, China, India jumping on board with this transition, we can safely say now that the lion's share of the global economy is committed to getting to net zero. So, that's an amazing statistic, and there's also not just at the country level, you've got at what's called non-state actor level. It's probably best to say non-state entities and the Race to Zero has managed to corral now 11,000 non-state entities from 116 countries to commit to a science-based agenda to reduce your emissions and get to net zero.


Yeah, interesting, and I think really interesting at the moment is the conversation that's going on. You do have all these commitments, but now we have a little bit of some challenging headwinds coming some. There's various macro economic trends that are happening in the world. The conflict in the Ukraine, you've got energy prices across Europe, you've got the US having conversations about what things mean and the press certainly picking up on trying to bifurcate between the E, the S and the G. So, it's really I think a critical time for things like your tracker which come out and show the data around delivery on net zero goals and really how do you deliver in spite of all of these other things. But for you, where do you think, in light of all of these changes that have happened recently, maybe you've had a long window on this 10 years ago to now, and where do you think those actions need to be taken right now in terms of what people need to be doing?


Yeah, you raise a good point. We're in an incredibly fraught geopolitical context, and so, it is really difficult for policy-makers and change-makers to implement the change that we need to do. Actually, I think it's a good time to talk a little bit about the Net Zero Tracker in terms of the transition because we're going from what we like to think from intention to integrity to implementation, and what the tracker tries to zero in on is the integrity side. Well, the intention side, yes, have these entities pledged, but also trying to surface whether there's good governance around those targets to therefore mean that implementation is more likely to succeed because you need good governance for the implementation of these targets.

In terms of specific actions, I like to think about it, I think it was Myles Allen, an Oxford academic who said that we need to concentrate changing the minds of decision-makers, not changing the decisions of 8 billion people, and so, that's often the way I like to frame it. And so, the actions that I would like to see, we need to see G7 leadership. We need to see the G7 delivering on their plans and policies that reduce emissions by 50% or more by 2030. I'd love to see the first G7 country come out and align to what the IEA has recommended that there needs to be no more investments in oil and gas from this point on, from 2022. So, I'd love to see a G7 country come out and do that.

You've got some very obvious ones, like if we could get a moratorium on coal. If Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping were to do something like that, that would be immense. It's unlikely, but that would really be kind of low-hanging in fruit at the international level. And then I suppose it can be all framed and I'm sure we'll get to this, Anna-Maria, when we talk about COP27, but I think the biggest thing that will unlock net zero ambition is actually the rich world, leaders from the rich world keeping their promises to the developing world. If they do that, it increases trust in the whole system and that will put a rocket under momentum that is sadly lacking, in part because of Putin's war in Ukraine and skyrocketing gas prices.


Yeah. No, actually an interesting point. I mean, obviously, we're going to get to COP27 and what we think that's going to happen there. I like your trio of Is there, intention, integrity, and implementation. I think especially that integrity is really that kind of putting your money where your mouth is which you need at a company level and you need at a delivery level, but you also needed at country level, and COP 27, there were a lot of big statements made in Glasgow in 26 around where money was flowing and how that was going to get delivered and how people were going to deliver on that change, and that was a really interesting time that the private actors first showed up in force, I think at a COP and said, "Look, we're in this, we're on this ride, and we're going to deliver on this ride."

I think 27, obviously people are calling it the Africa COP or the Global South COP, but I think it also is a continuation of that finance COP. Where is the cash going? Is it going anywhere? Is it still just being talked about? And how are people delivering on those 26 commitments? So, what are you seeing obviously doing some work around 27?


I mean, there are two things that make for a successful COP and this COP is no different. It's seldom that COPs are a success. We know that the Paris Agreement, COP15, sorry, COP21 was a success and that was a success because the rich world delivered on the promises to the poorest most vulnerable nations basically in full at that COP. So, that's what a successful COP would look like coming into Sharm El Sheikh , delivery on the climate finance of a hundred billion per year which was promised back in 2009, agreeing on a global adaptation goal, agreeing a loss of damage finance facility which is frankly an idea whose time has finally come, albeit at a very tense moment geopolitically where balance sheets aren't looking great. If there was to be delivery on one or two of those three items around adaptation, around loss of damage, around climate finance, reaching that a hundred billion threshold, I think COP27 would actually be a success, even if one or two of them, one of them was met, and the other two were say progressed.

We don't have momentum in terms of the nationally determined contributions. The carbon cutting promises by nations, I think just 23 of the nearly 200 countries which signed the Glasgow Climate Pact have submitted updated 2030 climate plans. You have some green shoots. For example, in Australia, they've raised their NDC or their carbon cutting 2030 plan from 26% to 43%. That's great. You've got the UAE which is hosting COP28 next year, they've promised to raise their ambition from 23 to 31%. The EU has promised to even increase their 55% promise in light of Ukraine and in light of the accelerated shift to renewables and away from gas. So, you do have some green shoots, but I don't see success coming on the kind of accelerated decarbonization plans at the moment. But what can unlock the momentum that's lacking there is through delivering on some of these promises to the most vulnerable, the least able countries in the world. So, I mean, that's how I'd frame COP27, but I think we have to go in with a low baseline, with low expectations unfortunately just because of the global situation at the moment.


Yeah, yeah. Changing tacks a little bit, I want to say congratulations, I think recently married. What are you yourself focused on in terms of sustainability? Any commitments in the way that you run your own shop?


Absolutely, I'm glad you asked. So, first and foremost, I'm not a climate saint unfortunately like some of my colleagues. I actually got married in Greece and we had 20 visitors from New Zealand, so it was a destination wedding. So, there is an admission at the start there. So, what we are trying to do actually, and thanks for your kind words, we just bought a small house in London and we are about to refurbish, and we will be taking advantage of the £5,000 heat pump grant, and we'll be installing solar. So, that's really exciting. We don't actually own a car, and so, we could keep it that way, but my partner is a doctor and changes where she works annually, so we will be looking at buying an EV next year as well. So, they're a few things that we're prioritising, and what I tend to say to my New Zealand friends where cars are a huge part of our culture, if there's anything that you can do it is to move to an EV and try and leave those behavioural traces so that others do the same.

But yeah, so flying is something that I potentially need to tackle, but in terms of my everyday, I am working on that, and then of course my work. That's the way I try and contribute the most. For example, I have an infographic in the pipeline that is zeroing in on net zero, and I'm going to use net zero actually as an anagram. Would you like me to share the anagram?


Oh yes. Yeah, yeah.


Yeah, okay. I'm sure it'll look better, as you intimated earlier. It'll look a lot better visually than spoken as anagrams tend to. So the N for net zero is near-term reductions. So, that's in effect carbon emissions by 2030 or thereabouts. E is an end target by mid-century at the latest. T is for transparency on scope, coverage plans, and interim targets. Z is zero emissions come first. E is equity is important. We need to a just transition, both internationally and domestically to be able to deliver on this and not have political backfire so that we can actually progress the decarbonization at the speed that science demands from us. R is for regular reporting and reviewing in light of new science, and the O is offsets come last.

So, what I'm hoping to do with that anagram is dive in and do a social media friendly diagram for each of those, but then it'll also be able to be presented as a coherent whole, and so, I'll release that on the tracker at some point before COP. That's a commitment that I've got is helping people understand climate change because as Katharine Hayhoe, one of the world's leading scientists says, the most important thing you can do around climate change is to talk about it. The prerequisite for that is understanding it. I think as Einstein said if you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well. I take that as a challenge and try and explain that as simply as possible to help others understand it.


Yeah, no, excellent anagram actually. It does incorporate lots and lots of the issues that we talk about in lots of different formats, right? We talk about them when we're talking about energy transition. We talk about that in the built environment. We talk about that in sustainable finance. It is that what are the goals, how do you get there, how do you know that somebody's actually getting there, right, that transparency, and also that continuous updating as people learn more. This is always going to iterate. It's not going to be something that you agreed to a year and a half ago and it's going to look the same in a year from now. It is going to be that constant kind of report and review. So, really nice anagram. I'm looking forward to you releasing that visually as well. I guess with a few moments left, the last few moments, if you could get the listeners just to remember one thing, one takeaway from today's conversation, what might that be?


If I may, I'd love to present two. So, I mean, the two questions I get asked, the two most common questions that I get asked when people find out that I work in climate change is are we screwed, the often more unsavoury language, and also, what can I do to help. And so, to the first question, are we screwed, no, we're not, and I think one of the liberating things about learning more about climate change is understanding that we really aren't... 1.5 degrees is better than two degrees. 1.5 degrees, the window to that is fast running out, but all's not lost if we don't hit that, what at the end of the day is an arbitrary target, but two degrees is still a lot better than three degrees, and three degrees is a lot better than four degrees. And so, I think understanding that if we don't hit some of these targets, that the Paris Agreement has front and centre, all is not lost.

There are science tipping points. Yes, there's a lot of uncertainty and unknown ones around those tipping points, but there are also social tipping points, and we're starting to encounter some of those social tipping points around wind and solar and EVs. So, it's a really exciting kind of juncture in the transition.

And then to the second question, what could I do to help, I've mentioned it, but it is to talk about it. If it's not political, if there aren't political repercussions or ripples, it could be better for your conscience than it is for the climate. So, when people think about individual behavioural change, I would urge them to think about whether it has a political dimension. It starts with talking about it with your friends and your colleagues and your family, but it also involves voting for climate-aware political candidates, for joining groups and organisations, for making your voice heard, for writing a letter to your public official, and wrapped up in that is that not to be overawed by the immensity of the challenge.

The way we're going to overcome climate change and deliver on decarbonization is not to sacrifice. It's through opportunity, and I think that's really important because sometimes sacrifice can be presented by certain dimensions of the aisle and I don't think it's helpful whatsoever. So, yeah, what I'd say is all not lost, but what we do need to do is we need to talk more about this issue.


Oh, great points, great points. Look, the opportunity is something that we talk about a lot. I like your point about basically don't give up. Even if it sounds bad now, keep going and don't just throw in the towel on it. Those are really important because people can get this kind of stand back attitude.


Well, and just on that point, they do say that do doomism is the new denialism, and I completely agree with that sentiment. It just is really unhelpful, and the worst thing about it is that in 10 years' time, in 15 years' time, you're still going to have people on certain political bents saying that, "Oh look, the IPCC said this was going to happen and it didn't happen, therefore climate change doesn't exist." And then you're going to have people perhaps on the left who are saying it's way worse than it was.

So, we're always going to have these culture wars. We're always going to have these political wars. From the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever made, but we have to, but we can't lose sight of the progress that we are implementing. If someone said to me that 90% of the global economy would be at net zero, sorry, would not be at net zero, would have committed to net zero three years ago, I would've not believed them. I think also the metrics that we use to judge progress needs to be firmly practical and pragmatic.


Thanks so much, John. I really appreciate you joining us today, and thanks for all your insights.


Cool. Thank you very much for having me, Anna-Marie.


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