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“Net zero” has rapidly become the new organizing paradigm of climate change law. In the past few years, thousands of countries, companies, states, and cities have developed pledges that promise by a set date—typically around 2050—that any carbon they emit will be counterbalanced by capturing an equal amount of carbon out of the atmosphere. Collectively, these pledges now cover more than 91% of the global economy. This widespread adoption of scientifically aligned climate policy appears on its surface like a cause for celebration. However, concerns are mounting. To date, critiques of net zero have centered on what this Feature terms “accounting” risks: that is, risks that pledges in action will fail to live up to pledges on paper. This Feature argues that there are two broader normative and political risks with net zero that are underdiagnosed but may prove more intractable. First, the net-zero framework is agnostic regarding the manner in which to neutralize atmospheric emissions, leaving each participating entity—including both governments and corporations—to determine its own preferred strategy. But decisions around how to reach net-zero emissions are contested, impactful, and often politically explosive. As net zero has proliferated as a framing paradigm, there has been a marked shift in the climate change policy conversation towards recognizing climate as imbricated with racial and economic justice. These considerations are ignored in the net-zero framing, with its emphasis on pristine carbon balance sheets. The second risk this Feature identifies is the “collective- achievement challenge”: if the world continues to pursue an atomized approach to net zero, it is likely that entities will overrely on certain cost-effective strategies—like tree planting—at scales that cannot be collectively achieved, at least not without substantial collateral social consequences. Disjunctive efforts toward net zero thus threaten to undermine the legal, political, and physical foundations of global decarbonization efforts. Understanding these risks counsels for restructuring the private sector’s role away from individualized net-zero targets toward a “reduce and support” approach that would better collectivize and rationalize net-zero policy. For public pledges, these risks counsel for more attention to net zero’s administering institutions and governance structures to foster more democratic, holistic decision-making about the shape and content of our decarbonized future.


Net zero emissions, climate change, carbon emissions, climate policy, decarbonization

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Yale Law Journal