Net-zero – A new international norm?

18 Nov 2020

By Dr. Mathieu Blondeel, Warwick Business School

In recent weeks, a wave of major climate announcements has swept over Asia. Japan and South Korea both target a 2050 deadline for their economies to reach “net-zero emissions”. While China, the world’s largest polluter, is aiming for 2060. Previously, the EU had already made the 2050 target a pillar of its Green Deal.

These are all big wins. If China alone reaches its self-imposed targets, it could help avoid 0.2-0.3°C of warming by the end of this century. Moreover, now that these three Asian countries joining the net-zero club, two-thirds of the world’s coal use (the dirtiest of fossil fuels) and roughly half of its emissions are now covered by national or regional net-zero objectives.

With Joe Biden as President-elect, who has also committed to a 2050 target in the US, there is cause for some climate optimism as all of this could actually breathe new life into global climate negotiations.

Norms in International Relations

This recent push for net-zero emissions is a classic example of the emergence and diffusion of an “international norm”. Norms are conveniently described as “standards of appropriate behaviour”. In other words, they define what is considered morally acceptable (or unacceptable) actions within the international community. Research in political science has convincingly showed the importance of changing international norms in the abolition of slavery and the end of Apartheid, women’s suffrage or multilateral arms control. They form, in fact, a vital aspect of international relations.

One important strength of such norms is that they do not necessarily have to be enforced. States can learn from one another, emulate each other’s behaviour and simply adopt those policies and ideas that they see as most convenient to adhere to.

Now, norms have reached the realm of global climate and energy politics. Countries are increasingly coming to terms with the scale of the climate challenge. Old, collective patterns of unbridled carbon emissions to sustain economic growth are becoming unsustainable and simply morally unacceptable. Climate neutrality, or net-zero emissions, by a specific point in the near future, is rapidly becoming the new “standard of appropriateness”.

But how can this net-zero norm actually diffuse to capture as many actors as possible?

Drivers behind norm diffusion

National governments, of course, are no longer the only relevant actors in international relations. Sub-national governments (cities, states, or provinces), international organisations, NGOs, and multinationals are also of great importance to help spread the norm. After President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, many local and state governments stepped up their climate efforts; for the first time ever, the International Energy Agency is now modelling what a “net-zero” world in 2050 should look like; investors are divesting on a large-scale and urging governments to take direct action; while multinationals are already committing to more ambitions targets. Even BP, one of the world’s largest oil & gas producers, has committed to a “net-zero” business strategy.

Two observations are relevant here. First, these actors do not exist in a vacuum. External events, such as elections, political crises, and economic downturn can alter a norm’s fate. The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a huge shock for fossil fuel demand and prices, likely giving the norm a serious push in the back. Fossil fuel stocks have plummeted, Exxon was thrown out the Dow Jones Industrial Average, while oil majors had to write down billions in assets. But the writing had been on the wall for a while. Key indices show that clean energy has long been outperforming fossil fuels. This brings me to the second observation. Investors are not necessarily inspired by the moral story behind climate change but by the trillions of dollars that are up for grabs in the sector as we move toward a “green recovery” and expedite the energy transition. In essence, norm change occurs both because of a change in what actors consider to be good and what’s in their interest.

Coming back to national governments, another way for them to accelerate norm diffusion is through a so-called “climate club”. In such a club, a group of countries decide to work toward a collective objective related to a public good. In this case: net-zero emissions. Members of the club cooperate based on a shared set of rules and norms. In turn, non-members (or non-compliers) can be “punished”. The club, for example, can levy taxes on the import of carbon-intensive products.

A norm, however, is only successful if a broad group of countries, wielding significant power, accept and institutionalise it. That is why a net-zero club including the EU, China, Japan, and South Korea has such great potential to breathe new life in international climate efforts. The added advantage is that they already have their national targets in place so less political bargaining will be required. Particularly smaller countries will then swiftly want to join in order to avoid the said punishments.

Obstacles on the way

The pathway to norm success is not preordained and a number of challenges remain. I highlight but a few here.

First, international norms are often vaguely formulated. This helps to convince laggards but complicates decisive action. For one, terms like “climate neutrality”, “carbon neutrality” and “net-zero emissions” are often used interchangeably, but don’t necessarily have the same meaning (E.g., are carbon offsets included?). Moreover, countries’ timelines aren’t aligned and there is far from any agreement on how to practically reach the set targets. Take the UK. it was the first major economy to adopt a 2050 net-zero target. But current policies in place mean that it will miss its (previous) 80 percent reduction targets, let alone net-zero by 2050. Norm acceptance is one thing, implementation another.

Second, there will always be tensions about norm enforcement. Countries are always reluctant to enter an agreement that allows for top-down imposed rules and economic sanctions for non-compliance. Unless, of course, benefits significantly outweigh costs. The top-down approach lies at the roots of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol’s historic failure. Fortunately, a norm and climate club approach is much more based on the bottom-up architecture of Kyoto’s successor, the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Third, the role of the US remains crucial. President-elect Joe Biden endorses the 2050 target and he has vowed to take up a leading role in climate diplomacy. But relations with China have significantly cooled. Restoring bilateral relations and intensifying climate cooperation between the two will be difficult, even under a Biden presidency. Moreover, it is unclear what the domestic support is (especially with Republican-held Senate) for far-reaching climate policy.

In the end, however, 2020 is on course to be the warmest year on record. So accelerated action is urgently needed. An approach based on shared norms and climate clubs would help improve the bottom-up governance of the Paris Agreement. All actors must seize this opportunity at the outset of this “critical decade” before the final window of opportunity closes.

Dr. Mathieu Blondeel is a Research Fellow at the Warwick Business School where he works on UKERC Theme 1 “UK Energy in a Global Context”.

(Other versions of this text appeared on the website of Knack Magazine (in Dutch) and on the website “Geography Directions”).