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Summer 2023: Net Zero

Vantage Point

Abigail Jones


  • Explains how global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050–2060 to avoid the worst climate change impact.
  • Sheds light on the challenges of successful implementation of net zero goals.
  • Summarizes the concept of the Net Zero issue of NR&E and what readers may expect I this issue.
Vantage Point
Naiyana Somchitkaeo/

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Net zero. These two simple words have perhaps never been as critically important as they are right now. Just this year, researchers at the World Meteorological Organization indicated that the critical threshold of 1.5ºC global temperature increase limit is likely to be exceeded within the next four years. While this may be a temporary, not permanent, increase, global temperatures have never breached the 1.5ºC-above-pre-industrial temperatures limit. According to the World Resources Institute, in order to avoid the worst impact from global climate change, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050–2060.

Net zero is a straightforward concept in which the amount of GHG emissions produced by human activity is fully mitigated by other human-driven activities so that we have no net increases in GHG emissions. The thinking is that by doing this, we will slow global warming and not reach that critical 1.5ºC temperature increase. The focus is on net zero because it is very clear that human society simply will not do what it needs to do to reduce the gross GHG emissions needed to prevent catastrophic impacts from climate change.

This shouldn’t be surprising given the propensity of humans to engage in the tragedies of the horizon, of the commons, and of the transition. With the tragedy of the horizon, the current generation has little incentive to change behaviors now in order to prevent future harms from global climate change, despite knowing that those harms will occur. With the tragedy of the commons—one of our favorites—there is no one authority that can force us to reduce our GHG emissions and so why would one take on the risk changing behaviors when it’s not guaranteed everyone else will as well. And with the tragedy of the transition, vested power interests, paralysis in the face of claimed uncertainty, and sheer scale of the needed change results in an inherent resistance to the disruption that would be needed to stop (or even significantly reduce) GHG emissions. As a result, we are forced to rely on mitigation, adaptation, and resiliency rather than stopping the root cause of the problem. We are forced to rely on net zero.

This issue provides insight into what relying on net zero looks like in different contexts. We begin with an article that (hopefully) forces us to look within—to consider what role we as lawyers and as legal institutions have in a net-zero world. The authors highlight what some bar associations are already doing across the globe and challenge us to be more thoughtful about how we, in our unique position as energy, environmental, and natural resources attorneys, can have a more climate-conscious legal practice. We then turn to a series of articles that drill down more specifically into the net-zero responsibilities, issues, and risks for our corporate clients. Much of this is through the lens of environmental, social, and governance (ESG), recognizing that accountability for net zero means greenwashing is no longer sufficient. ESG results in accountability towards net zero, but that also comes with risks to corporations, including from potential shareholder suits. Importantly, one article discusses how environmental justice must be considered when crafting both ESG policies and net-zero goals. Next, we have two articles that consider the myriad regulatory frameworks for net zero. These articles highlight the differences between using sticks and carrots to reach net zero, and also discuss how market forces can impact net-zero goals. The issue concludes with three articles that offer three very different technological solutions that are critical for reaching net zero: municipally imposed building decarbonization, carbon capture and storage, and the nature-based solution of blue carbon.

While the concept of net zero is straightforward, this issue shows how challenging successful and meaningful implementation can be. Hopefully, these articles offer thoughtful solutions to those challenges or at least get you thinking about net zero in a more effective way. We can’t wait any longer to get net zero right.

    Issue Editor