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13 October 2021

Why we shouldn’t use Climate Action and Net Zero Interchangeably

Dr. Helen Beddow

By Dr. Helen Beddow

Why we shouldn’t use Climate Action and Net Zero Interchangeably

With COP26 just around the corner, we are all going to be seeing the words Climate Action and Net Zero often. This feels like a good time to clarify what they mean and why it’s important to take care in how we use them.

Dr Helen Beddow is the Climate Content and Knowledge Lead at Cervest. Read her bio here.

Because Climate Action and Net Zero have related but different meanings, there is a general tendency to use them interchangeably. This might seem relatively harmless, but there is a danger in conflating or confusing the two terms. Climate Action is SDG 13, one of the United Nations sustainable development goals. It’s definition is to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”. Net Zero, on the other hand, is defined as a state where we have balanced carbon emissions against carbon removal.

By making Climate Action synonymous with Net Zero, we end up using Climate Action to mean only Net Zero — and that all important second half of SDG 13 “and it’s impacts” gets lost. This is problematic because Net Zero is just one half of what experts agree needs to be an integrated approach to tackling climate change. The focus of climate discussions tends to be on mitigation, such as the UK’s upcoming release of their Net Zero Strategy in November or the recent survey from the climate consensus. The important word missing from general discussion on Climate Action is adaptation. We hear very little about adaptation, and It’s clear that this needs to change - “Adapt or die” is the stark warning from the Environment Agency.

A short overview of Net Zero

Following negotiations at COP21 in 2015, 191 members of the United Nations signed the Paris Agreement, making a legally binding commitment to limit global average temperature increase to less than 2℃, and preferably to 1.5℃. This number is the generally accepted danger line for global temperature increases as a result of climate change. Holding the line at 1.5℃ reduces the risk of natural systems and processes reaching “tipping points” of potentially irreversible change. Beyond 1.5℃ things really start to deteriorate, a bleak picture outlined unequivocally by the International Panel on Climate Change. To limit warming to 1.5℃, we need to halve global emissions within ten years, and reach Net Zero in thirty years. The faster we reduce our emissions, the more we reduce the risk of us crossing over that 1.5℃ danger line. This is the race part of Race to Net Zero.

With so much riding on this number, it’s easy to overlook the fact that 1.5℃ is just one (very important) part of the Paris Agreement. In line with SDG 13, the overarching commitment is a pledge to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Both SDG 13 and the Paris Agreement place adaptation on par with mitigation in tackling climate change. Both recognize its absolutely essential role in reducing the potentially catastrophic socioeconomic consequences of climate change.

Why is adaptation so important?

Adaptation is the process of adjusting to the impacts of climate change. Climate change makes us vulnerable, from things like sea-level rise in populated coastal areas, food production and extreme weather events. Adaptation is key to reducing our vulnerability to climate change, and needs to happen not just as a long-term strategy, but as an immediate priority.

Climate change is already here

Extreme weather events have become more frequent and more intense, resulting in significant financial loss, property damage and massive disruption to operations and supply chains. Extreme weather events hit locally, but they create a cascading chain of impacts that ripple out across broader social and economic business ecosystems. From wildfires in Greece to flooding in New York causing widespread devastation, it’s clear that we need adaptation strategies.

Future climate change is already locked in

Even if we reached Net Zero tomorrow, we would still be dealing with the impacts of climate change. The way our climate system operates creates decades-long delays between cause and effect, so the emissions responsible for at least part of future temperature increases have already been released. We need adaptation plans in place, both short-term and long-term, to prepare for the social and economic impacts.

Missing that 1.5℃ target is a real possibility

According to the IPCC, we’ve already reached 1.1.℃. Although the IPCC does say we still have time, this is a monumental task and we don’t have much wiggle room. The latest round of carbon pledges from national governments released in September fell far short of the 45% reduction in emissions identified by the IPCC as the minimum threshold. Even with the best intentions to honour commitments, detangling carbon from national economies isn’t an easy task. With current policies in place, the Climate Action Tracker estimates global temperatures will increase to 2.9℃ by 2100. As of September 2021, only one country, the Gambia, has current emissions targets aligned with the Paris Agreement.

Climate adaptation and Net Zero: two sides of the same coin

In pointing out the narrow window we have on limiting warming to 1.5℃, I’m not aiming to undermine Net Zero, which is absolutely essential. We need to do everything we can to limit warming to 1.5℃. But on it’s own, Net Zero is not enough. Without adaptation, we are in deep trouble. Adaptation and mitigation need to go hand in hand to tackle climate change. We need to dramatically increase the scale and pace of both. If we overlook adaptation in our march to mitigation, the world will be dramatically less prepared for the impacts of climate change.

The danger of confusing Climate Action with Net Zero is that we risk people not realizing how important adaptation is and failing to prioritize it in the short-term. Being clear and consistent about the language we use helps everyone get a better grasp on what climate change might mean for them, and for humanity collectively. We can’t risk leaving adaptation behind in the Race to Net Zero. We do so at our own peril.

Please share your thoughts with us on Net Zero and Climate Action with us on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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