Jessica Omukuti on the UN High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities

InSIS Research Fellow Jessica Omukuti has been appointed to the United Nations High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities, convened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres this past March. Here, Jessica reflects on the mission of the Group, and on strategies to make justice and equity central to our understanding of net zero

Justice and equity should be central to the quality of net zero commitments by non-state actors

The Paris Agreement recognises that limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees will need a global balance of emission by sources and sinks by the middle of the century. This recognition has garnered a lot of support, particularly from businesses and corporations globally. According to the Net Zero Tracker, as of July 2022, actors accounting for more than 83% of global emissions (and 91% of global GDP) have established net zero targets.

After COP26, the United Nation Secretary General constituted a high-level expert group to advice on how to improve the integrity of net zero commitments by non-state entities, and avoid that these commitments become simply a means of ‘greenwashing’ activities incompatible with climate stability.

The expert group became operational in March 2022, and it is tasked to develop recommendations on: (a) how to enhance existing net zero standards to achieve maximum integrity of net zero commitments; (b) how to assess and improve the credibility of net zero commitments and plans; (c) appropriate mechanisms for verification of targets and plans that enable transparency; and (d) how to achieve regulation of non-state actor net zero commitments and plans.

In a recent briefing, expert group members expressed the recognition that integrating equity and justice into net zero commitments was critical for avoiding greenwashing.

Equity and justice are core principles of the Paris Agreement, and it is important that all aspects of climate governance integrate them fully, particularly by focusing on the needs and priorities of those in developing countries who have contributed least to climate change and have limited capacity to respond to climate change risks.

Justice and equity in net zero for non-state actors involves several ideas. First, it means ensuring that net zero target setting, transition planning, implementation and reporting requirements reflects geographical, financial, and technological differences in capacity. Only then can non-state actors contribute their fair share towards addressing climate change and meeting the global net zero target outlined in the Paris Agreement. Second, it is crucial that non-state actors receive support to address key gaps in their capabilities. Finally, net zero action should be aligned with the sustainable development and poverty eradication needs of developing countries.

Beyond these basic principles, individuals and institutions globally need a better understanding of what net zero, as a concept and framework to judge climate ambition, means for developing countries and their stakeholders.

The Net Zero Stocktake report, developed by researchers from Oxford Net Zero and the New Climate Institute highlighted key regional disparities in the net zero landscape. The report found that net zero target setting by sub-national and non-state actors ‘has not yet spread widely beyond high-income countries in North America, Europe and Asia’, indicating a gap in engagement and participation from non-state actors from developing countries. The report recommends regulation to bridge the gap in quantity and quality of net zero commitments by private sector non-state actors in developing countries.

Although regulations for developing country economies are important, a comprehensive list of what non-state actors need to create credible net zero commitments requires further research. One overarching question that needs urgent unpacking are contrasting understandings of justice and equity in global and regional transition to net zero. For example:

  1. What are the equity and justice implications of net zero for state and non-state actors in developing countries, and how can these be addressed?
  2. What are the potential unintended consequences of a global transition to net zero in developing countries?
  3. What other alternative framings (other than net zero) could be used to meet the targets adopted in the Paris Agreement?

It is by addressing these questions that researchers and practitioners can generate evidence for future deliberations on net zero for climate action, and to transform net zero into an effective concept and framework for just climate transitions.