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“Net zero” has become a buzzword in the realm of climate science and policy. Nations, states, and cities must achieve net zero carbon emissions within decades to meet the stated goals of the Paris Climate Accord. Corporations have set targets aligned with net zero to appeal to a growing appetite for environmentally conscious products. Even individuals, especially those with carbon-intensive lifestyles, have charted out net zero pathways for themselves. Despite its increasing popularity, however, the term net zero remains ill-defined among the public and is often used as a misnomer by bad-faith actors looking to appear good for the planet at face value.

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As defined by the University of Oxford’s Net Zero Group, net zero is both an action and an end state. As an action, to go net zero means to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions and/or ensure that any ongoing emissions are balanced by removals.” The concept of net zero arose as a means to slow anthropogenic climate change caused by the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which resulted from humans clearing land for development and our burning of fossil fuels. By unlocking carbon reservoirs in the geosphere, humans have altered the timescales at which carbon cycles through the Earth system, creating a significant imbalance of carbon which has cascading effects—most notably the increased global surface temperature warming that causes more chaotic and frequent storms, droughts, and floods.

Illustration of carbon capture technology which uses filter technology to remove the green house gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it underground.
Illustration of carbon capture technology which uses filter technology to remove the green house gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it underground. Getty

Even though carbon is naturally removed from the atmosphere through cellular respiration and ocean absorption, humans can enhance the removal capacity of the natural world through ecosystem management and technology to balance out residual emissions from harder-to-mitigate sectors, such as aviation or steel manufacturing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that a net zero world by 2050 will cease overall warming at approximately 1.5 Celsius in the latter half of the century, allowing the Earth’s system to recalibrate and recover from centuries of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, biosphere, and oceans.

Meanwhile greenwashing, or the spread of misleading information regarding an institution’s environmental performance, has disoriented the public on what products, actions, and policies are aligned with the goal of net zero by 2050. For example, in many institutions’ net zero-aligned transition plans, carbon offsetting is a crucial strategy to account for their emissions reduction targets. Rather than working to decarbonize internal operations and functions, many corporations and governments are looking outward to see where carbon removal can be maintained. For many institutions, carbon offsetting is considered an “easy way out” or a license to continue emitting greenhouse gasses. While the restoration of ecosystems and development of carbon removal technologies will be critical in the path towards net zero, and carbon credits can help incentivize this, unfortunately, many of these carbon credits are being used to support the maintenance of forests that already exist (which is excellent for the local economy but does not remove excess emissions—there’s no element of additionality) or create fast-growing monoculture forests that sequester carbon, but are poor for biodiversity and ecosystem health.

This is where net zero pathways must be nuanced with larger goals of holistic environmental remediation and justice for vulnerable communities. The concept of net zero pushes institutions to simply optimize for reducing carbon emissions rather than consider the more enormous impact that its operations and functions have on society. The target of net zero by 2050 also suggests that climate action can be delayed until 2049—keeping us in a state of quasi-emergency—until the development of miraculous technology that can magically sequester the world’s emissions. Not only does this completely disregard that anthropogenic climate change is caused by accumulation (the building up of emissions over time), but it also assumes that this technology will be successful and governed in an equitable and just way.

In these transition pathways, there’s an opportunity to simultaneously do the hard work of abating emissions, creating across-the-board positive environmental outcomes, and fostering justice and equity along the way. This is where an inclusive net zero must be centered. It’s only by embracing more comprehensive vision that we can hope to build a sustainable and equitable future for all.

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Commitment to Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050 by Local Governments in the Kyushu Region of Japan: Background, Current Situation, and Challenges, February 1, 2021
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
New Labor Forum, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Fall 2016), pp. 101–106
Sage Publications, Inc.
Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, Vol. 16, No. 4 (December 2014), pp. 1–16
World Scientific Publishing Co., Inc.