As groups all over the world mark Earth Day, US Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives of approximately 130 other countries are expected to attend the signing ceremony for the Paris Climate Agreement in New York. The agreement, which was finalised in Paris in December, has been hailed as a significant step forward for climate change. But what’s it really going to take to turn the agreement into action and ensure we keep below 2 degrees? With the focus on carbon neutral ramping up in the pre and post Paris conversations, representatives of government, business and civic society debated why ‘getting to zero’ was important and how they thought we might get there.

Getting to Zero: Why and How?

         

As groups all over the world mark Earth Day, US Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives of approximately 130 other countries are expected to attend the signing ceremony for the Paris Climate Agreement in New York. The agreement, which was finalised in Paris in December, has been hailed as a significant step forward for climate change. But what’s it really going to take to turn the agreement into action and ensure we keep below 2 degrees? With the focus on carbon neutral ramping up in the pre and post Paris conversations, representatives of government, business and civic society debated why ‘getting to zero’ was important and how they thought we might get there.

“It seems new to many … [but] since the 1980s, some form of getting to, or close to, zero has been part of the discussion in one way or another,” said Mark Kenber, CEO of The Climate Group, kicking off the discussion, which was hosted by  Jonathan Shopley of Natural Capital Partners in Paris. 

“To get to zero is going to require a cultural shift,” said Jonathan Grant,  Director of Sustainability & Climate Change at PwC in London, who also stressed that mind set change would need to be accompanied by a shift in capital deployment.

Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development made the point that disruptive technologies will play an essential role. Innovations will come from both established businesses such as Apple and Google, as well as start-ups like Tesla – which last year unveiled the first-ever energy storage solution for residential use, Powerwall.

“There will be entrepreneurial activities and fast adoption,” said Bakker. “The transition to a low-carbon economy is inevitable. This is not an incremental game – this is a transformation.”

But how is that transformation going to be achieved? Both Google and Enel have ambitious plans to drive emission reductions and get to zero, but they are going about it in very different ways.

Tech giant Google has been carbon neutral since 2007. Its strategy follows three strands: to build a more sustainable global network; source 100% of its power from renewable sources, and is an active investor in renewables, with $2.5 billion to invest; and continuing to develop new solutions, such as improving energy efficiency at data centres.

This latter point has seen the firm obtain 3.5 times more computing power from the same amount of energy as previously – saving billions.

“It’s the right business decision,” said Kate Brandt, Lead for Sustainability at the firm.

Italian power firm Enel is taking steps to become carbon neutral before 2050. In 2014, the firm had 100GW of installed capacity globally, with 47% of its output emissions-free; 20% apiece from coal and gas and 5% from nuclear. This is a remarkable shift since 2009, when fossil fuels dominated Enel’s portfolio.

“It’s an ambitious decarbonisation plan,” said Daniele Agostini, Head of Environmental and Low Carbon Policies at the firm. The world is poised for a technological disruption – but governments need to ensure the right policies are in place to bring these together and to ensure the public is on board, he said.

So far some governments have been much more ambitious in setting policy than others, though the hope is that the Paris Agreement will mean many others will take steps to catch up.

Ontario’s environment minister, Glen Murray, has been uncompromising in his approach. “If you’re driving to the cliff, it doesn’t matter if you’re at 2°C, 2.5°C … if you’re heading at that cliff, you’re going to go over,” he said. Murray is currently overseeing the development of a cap-and-trade market to reduce GHG emissions in the Canadian province, with an eye on forming a ‘carbon club’ with California and Québec.

In Costa Rica, it was the government which led the way for the private sector, with a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2021 – a goal it has pursued doggedly, despite push back from other developing nations. “The private sector bought it,” said Monica Araya, founder and executive director at think-tank Nivela and a former employee of the Costa Rican government. “Business moved faster than the government could deliver.” Coffee producers ran with the idea, as they could see the benefits. The “me too phenomenon” saw other businesses follow suit.

This wide business support was propped up by public backing, which has ensured the carbon neutrality goal has remained in place even in the face of political changes. “We want to say to the world ‘we can do this’,” Araya said.

It’s not always easy to get the public on board, however, as British Columbia has found. The Canadian province, which in 2015 celebrated five years of carbon neutrality in the public sector, introduced a carbon tax in 2008. Applied at the point of purchase, such as at petrol pumps, all revenue raised is used to cut taxes elsewhere.

Urban support for action on climate change “doesn’t change the problem elected officials have: the rural electorate blames the carbon tax for job losses,” said Mary Polak, Minister of Environment for the British Columbia.

“There’s a disconnect when we talk about the cost of the change and the experience of the change,” she said, despite the revenue-neutrality of the tax. Polak said that, given concerns from parts of the electorate, politicians need help to communicate the values of changes to the wider public.

Norway has also struggled with perceptions of its activities to cut emissions, said Peer Stiansen, who works for the Ministry of Environment. Aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050, the country has been an active investor in projects to protect and preserve forests around the world. This change of mind set – from viewing forests as a resource to a ‘sink’, able to capture GHG emissions – is important, he said. However, Norway struggles with perceptions that it is only taking these steps so it can continue to pollute domestically – a claim Stiansen rejects.

“There will still be emissions – we’re not going to shoot all the cows,” Stiansen said of the country’s pursuit of offset credits. “Carbon credits are an important instrument,” said Pedro Faria, technical director of CDP, the organisation which gathers carbon emission and water use disclosure information from companies around the world. “They can help finance broader solutions,” he said, referring to the co-benefits that many carbon finance projects bring, such as improved public health, access to clean water and access to education.

In an effort to engage a broader audience, the UN last year launched the Climate Neutral Now initiative. Via an online platform, businesses, governments and individuals can measure their emissions and purchase offset credits to compensate and reach net zero, as well as learn about actions that can reduce their emissions further.

“The topic is very dear to Christiana Figueres,” said John Kilani, then director of the Sustainable Development Mechanisms programme at the UNFCCC, referring to the UN climate chief. “Emissions need to peak as soon as possible and then decline.”

Part of the challenge is communicating to the wider public why getting to zero is important, and what is being, and can be, done to get us there. Indeed, while the Paris Agreement has been celebrated as a major achievement, Araya warns that the raft of pledges – for action by 2025 or 2030 – are perceived by the public as delaying action and as too technical.

“The focus is on decarbonisation, which is academic,” she said, rather than extolling the benefits the plans can bring, such as cleaner air. “Going forward, we need intermediaries to translate this – otherwise, we’ll stay in the bubble and won’t get buy-in.”

And to drive that change you need to set goals that people will buy into. “Frame it in a way that’s most useful for the constituency you’re working with,” said Kenber. As with the RE100 initiative (businesses pledging to 100% renewable energy) a zero emissions goal may be harder to get to, but there’s no doubt that it’s top of class.

It’s that dot on the horizon, the vision of getting to zero that is required as a meaningful change agent for business, for government and for the public.