As public and private sector organisations worldwide are increasingly focusing on net zero credentials, the United Nations has weighed into the debate about the credibility of net zero claims.
In March 2022, UN Secretary-General António Guterres established a High Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities. The Expert Group is examining ways to standardise and regulate net-zero emissions commitments or pledges, and will submit its recommendations to the UN Secretary-General in early November.
Emission reductions and net-zero targets issues to be addressed
Speaking on the establishment of the Expert Group, the UN Secretary-General acknowledged that there is a “deficit of credibility and a surplus of confusion” over emission reductions and net-zero targets.
The standards developed will aim to address widespread and mounting concern that many net-zero pledges are not consistent with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to well below 2° Celsius, and preferably 1.5° Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.
The Expert Group acknowledges that it is critical for companies to have interim targets, as well as longer-term net-zero commitments. However, it says there is a growing prevalence of companies making ”greenwashing” claims in relation to their net-zero commitments without sufficient grounds for those commitment, or sufficient prospects of achieving them. A lot of other commitments also fall short due to a lack of guidance on how to make net-zero commitments that are ambitious while also being credible and attainable in the relevant company’s circumstances and that align with the highest standards of environmental integrity and transparency.
The Expert Group aims to establish strong, clear standards for net-zero pledges which could also serve as the basis for government regulations that would apply to businesses in making these commitments. These standards would provide certainty and clarity for both businesses making net-zero claims and the regulators and interest groups evaluating them.
According to the Terms of Reference for the Expert Group, the main objectives of the Expert Group are to make recommendations promoting more ambitious climate action and environmental integrity, addressing four specific areas:
- Current standards and definitions for setting net-zero targets and, if necessary, on additional elements to enhance these to achieve the highest possible integrity of standards for net-zero targets.
- Creditability criteria to be used to assess the stated objectives, measurement and reporting of net-zero pledges.
- Processes for verification and accounting of progress towards net-zero commitments and reported decarbonisation plans in a transparent manner, including any reliance on greenhouse gas removal and offsets.
- A roadmap to translate standards and criteria into international and national level regulations.
Further examination of the role of offsets
The Expert Group will also be examining the role of offsets in meeting net-zero commitments, adding to the growing number of guidelines, codes and standards being developed on the setting net-zero targets and commitments, greenwashing, and the credible use of carbon credits to offset unabated emissions to meet net-zero commitments.
From an international perspective, we recently wrote on the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative’s Provisional Claims Code of Practice which provided a framework for assessing whether organisations are using carbon credits in a legitimate way and making credible claims about their progress towards their longer-term net-zero commitments (VCMI Code). The requirements under the proposed VCMI Code that must be met in order to receive a VCMI recognition are very stringent, and this might deter some organisations from engaging with the VCMI Code.
The Expert Group’s recommendations might offer an alternative.