In recent months, several of the world biggest carbon-emitting countries have joined the European Union in a pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 (Japan, South-Korea) or 2060 (China). All in all, over 110 countries have made similar promises. But what are these ambitious targets really worth? Can we believe them or is this just a 'race to zero' greenwashing exercise?

It seems world leaders are in a new race. Not a space race to put a man on the moon this time, but a race to become carbon-neutral or 'net-zero' as soon as possible. They took inspiration from latest IPCC report of 2018, which recommended that countries need to reach net-zero GHG emissions in the second half of the 21st century to have a chance of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees and preferably to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial level (the Paris agreement of 2015).

Up until September 2020, more than 20 countries (e.g. Sweden, UK, France, Denmark and others) had set themselves net-zero targets, but it was only when China, Japan and South-Korea announced similar objectives in the last months that the net-zero hype really took off in the media.

The announcement by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the UN General Assembly of 22 September took the world by surprise. Xi promised that his country would peak carbon emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality before 2060. This promise came a week after China had a meeting with EU leaders on climate change but had very few further details on how China would go about decarbonising its economy. When one knows that the superpower is still building hundreds of coal power plants and financing hundreds of others in countries outside of China, one has to wonder in how far this announcement is more than a nice PR-exercise for global purposes. The targets also do not seem to include stopping emissions of other major (and sometimes more powerful) greenhouse gases such as methane.

A few weeks later, China's example was followed by similar steps in other Asian countries. In Japan, Prime Minister Suga indicated end of October that his country would rethink its reliance on coal and shift to solar power and 'carbon recycling' and so become net-zero by 2050. A few days later, South-Korean President Moon Jae-in announced carbon neutrality by 2050 also replacing coal power with renewable energy. But, like China, South Korea is one of the main investors in new coal power plants in and outside of the country.

The announcement by the three Asian power houses are clearly embedded in a communication strategy for the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November 2021. With the new Biden government, it might be expected that in 2021, the US will follow with similar targets.

The biggest challenge in these (and other governments' zero-target pledges) is that a huge part of the emissions reduction is supposed to come from carbon removal strategies such as new forests and carbon capture and storage technologies. Many academic energy experts question  the use of carbon removal technologies. One good example is a recent academic article in the Journal Biophysical Economics and Sustainability, where June Sekera and Andreas Lichtenberger reviewed the literature on industrial carbon dioxide removal. The researchers concluded that several methods being used for carbon removal actually add more CO2 to the atmosphere than they remove.

The new “net-zero” narrative might indeed suffer from the same gulf between discourse and reality as some of the “green growth” successes of the past. Some years ago, South-Korea’s “green growth strategy was often hailed as a great example, but as recent research demonstrated the Korean green paradigm shift was seriously flawed  and did not really deliver what was expected.

So, as trade unions and progressive citizens, let's temper our optimism about the new green races and keep pushing our government to make work of real decarbonisation strategies.