Net zero by 2050 is “too little too late”: Scientists make a case for net negative strategies

A view of the city of Manaus (on the other side of the river), through a flooded area on the edge of the Rio Negro (image credit: International Monetary Fund, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

A report published on 26 August by an independent group of experts warns that reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is now “too little too late”, and will not achieve the long-term temperature goals identified in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century.

Drawing upon findings recently published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), the report from the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG) argues that current global emissions targets are inadequate and that net negative – rather than net zero – strategies are required.

The report, titled ‘The Final Warning Bell’ suggests that even if countries achieve net zero by mid-century, this will not tackle greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, with CO2 equivalent concentrations potentially continuing to climb as high as 540ppm (parts per million). This means there is little to no room for manoeuvre, with only a 50% chance of holding the 1.5°C line.

With 67 days to go until COP26, CCAG is urging global leaders to shift emphasis towards net negative emissions targets as the only viable way to ensure greenhouse gas levels can return to pre-industrial levels, in line with the Paris Agreement. If not, it is likely that global temperatures will exceed 1.5°C as soon as 2030, taking the world into a zone of dangerous climate change.

Sir David King, Chair of CCAG, commented: “Achieving net zero by 2050 is no longer enough to ensure a safe future for humanity; we must revise global targets beyond net zero, and commit to net negative strategies urgently.

“It’s clearer than ever that there is no carbon budget remaining, and there really is no room left for manoeuvre; this is our ‘now or never’ moment. The world will be watching in November, as governments and policymakers come together at COP26, and they must put the future of humanity first.

“The latest IPCC AR6 report is the surest assessment to date of the global catastrophe on our hands should our leaders not take immediate, concerted action in confronting the climate crisis.”

To fund the research and development necessary to create scalable greenhouse gas reductions, CCAG emphasises the need for considerable public finance to support the production of greenhouse gas removal techniques that can remove and store greenhouse gases safely.

CCAG warns that at present, this research is not taking place at the scale or pace required to meet net zero commitments, nor reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to a manageable level.

At COP21, 25 nations agreed to create a fund capable of spending $30 billion of public money each year to research and create technologies required in the post-fossil-fuel world. CCAG is now calling for the initial budget set out in Mission Innovation to include heavier investment in greenhouse gas removal as we look to reach beyond net zero to net negative.

The report is the third from the recently formed independent and international Group, comprised of climate experts across a range of disciplines.

CCAG says it has a clear, three pillar strategy for tackling the climate crisis:

  • Reduce:
    Current targets for greenhouse gas reduction are not enough. Nations need to triple their emissions-cutting pledges urgently to play their part
  • Remove:
    We need critical investment to develop, research and scale techniques to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere
  • Repair:
    Deep research is needed to explore and investigate safe methods and technologies that could repair parts of our damaged climate systems

Professor Nerilie Abram, member of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group and Professor at the Australian Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, said: “The science is clear and simple – every tonne of CO2 we emit does damage. Despite 30 years of increasingly dire warnings from the IPCC, our global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise relentlessly. We are now out of time.

“The lack of effective action from the global community means that drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are no longer enough. To avoid the catastrophic climate changes that lie beyond 1.5°C of warming we now have no choice but to also rapidly pull greenhouse gases back out of the atmosphere. This must be part of the conversation.”

The Group urges global governments to recognise that we are now in a key governmental commitment phase, where actions over the next two decades will determine the outcome for humanity over centuries to millennia. Agile international political and financial action along the lines of ‘reduce, remove, repair’ is required to mitigate the consequences of climate change.

For more information, read CCAG’s latest report here.