The Paris Climate Agreement survived four years of the Trump administration, but it’s hardly thriving. Fortunately, and however you judge its overall efficacy, Paris is built for change. The question, as we stumble forward through the pandemic, involves whether the pace and direction of change are likely to deliver on the agreement’s central goal of holding warming to “well below 2°C,” and ideally to the still-dangerous 1.5°C.

In this context, the global push for national “net zero 2050” targets has emerged as a keystone strategy. If you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about. But let me add, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say this: Net zero 2050 is best understood as a gambit, a risky move made with the hope of winning a decisive advantage.

What’s being risked? Equity, by which I mean the justice – real and perceived – of the global climate mobilization as a whole. Is the risk well advised? It may well be, if it helps to kickstart a true international mobilization – climate is, after all, a true emergency – and if we have a meaningful public finance breakthrough, a chance of a true breakthrough.

No time for short-term complacency

How is equity at risk? This key question has been overshadowed by others, which dominate the “backlash” now rising against net zero targets. The first thing to know here is that, when the IPCC’s 2018 special report on Global warming of 1.5°C cited a specific date, and put net zero 2050 on the political map (“In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.”) it was speaking of the planetary CO2 balance, not the emissions of any given country, and certainly not the emissions of any given corporation. The second is that the 2050 milestone does not in any way justify short-term complacency. This is about 2030, and everybody knows it.

The problem of “net” vs “real” reductions is more difficult. It’s also getting lots of attention, now that hundreds of major corporations have rushed to join the net zero club. The attention is justified, for if history is any guide this rush will yield a confusionist brew of half measures, garbage offsets, cynical optimism, false solutions and straight-up public-relations “bullshit” (to lift a technical terms from Drawdown’s Jonathan Foley). If you’re not already up to speed on this front, take a look at Foley’s recent call for better climate pledges, or the new report called “The Big Con: How Big Polluters are advancing a ‘net zero’ climate agenda to delay, deceive and deny,” which was just released by a large coalition of US climate and climate justice groups.

There’s another problem, though, and it involves not corporations but nations themselves, and their radically differing inequality. Some host wealth beyond measure, while others are utterly impoverished; some have emitted immense masses of carbon, while others are almost entirely innocent; some are dependent on the extraction of fossil fuels, while others enjoy low-carbon economies. Given these realities, any fair global transition strategy has to be “differentiated” among nations, so that each can at least privately consider the challenge of doing its fair share. But equitable differentiation, the defining problem of international climate justice, is simply ignored within the net zero 2050 frame, which applies the same target to all countries, and leaves each on its own to achieve this almost mind-boggling goal. 

Net zero targets are no guide to national fair shares

Further, this target is everywhere being conflated with basic, good-faith earnestness, as if achieving net zero 2050 were “an important yardstick by which climate pledges by major economies are to be judged.” As if it were the essence of fair shares national pledges. I’m quoting here from a recent statement by Navroz Dubash, Harald Winkler and Lavanya Rajamani – three very widely respected developing world climate policy analysts – who warn that net zero 2050 targets do “not account for considerations of justice across countries, important differences in national climate politics, or the credibility of pledges.”

In fact, national net zero 2050 targets (even with a bit of flex – China went with 2060) are not a proper guide to national fair shares, especially not if each country is left on its own to achieve them. Ours is a world defined by extreme inequality. Some countries are rich, while others are not, yet the international push for uniform, self-funded targets takes little account of this essential fact. So little that even fantastically wealthy countries like the U.S. can get away with adopting national pledges of action that contain almost no support for climate action in poorer countries.

The “fair shares” idea is no longer entirely obscure. Keep your ears open, and you’ll hear the term with increasing frequency. This is notable given the rapid approach of the first Global Stocktake, which is enjoined by the Paris Agreement to occur in 2023 and to proceed “in the light of equity.” The point of the stocktake is to see how we’re all doing – with regard to mitigation, adaptation, and international climate finance – or, more precisely, to compel the nations of the world to stare, together, at the abject inadequacy of their common actions. As they do, they’ll resort to all sorts of claims, dubious and otherwise, as they seek to reassure each other that they, at least, are doing their fair share. 

The urgency of global action on public financing

Close evaluation of such claims is a technical business, but rough judgments aren’t particularly difficult. The defining insight is that the climate crisis is planetary by definition, and national fair shares must similarly be shares in the planetary effort. For wealthy countries, this has an important, if inconvenient, corollary: To do their fair shares, they must not only act domestically, but also provide real support for action in poorer countries. It would be perfectly appropriate for the U.S. to take a 2030 domestic emissions reduction target of 70%, but given its outsized capacity and historical responsibility, this effort would hardly meet its fair share, which, I maintain, also includes an even greater amount of internationally supported action.

This brings us back to net zero 2050, which, as per the usual realist logic, posits not international effort-sharing, but rather a climate mobilization strategy in which each country is left to find its own path to net zero. It’s a mad and desperate strategy, but given that desperation is a perfectly rational response to the planetary crisis, the real question is whether it can work. I of course don’t know – none of us do – but I’m pretty sure that, like any gambit, it could go either way.

Success will depend on many things, but it will specifically depend on a public climate finance breakthrough. If one occurs, the net zero 2050 strategy could open into a fair and effective global ambition mechanism. Absent such a breakthrough, it’s just going to lead to the proliferation of crap offsets, as countries do everything to pretend they’re actually mobilizing at the necessary scale. 

The elites, alas, have so far proven unwilling to provide real public climate finance. The good news is that this absence has been noticed. The International Energy Agency, which recently shocked us all by publishing a serious net zero 2050 roadmap, insists that such a breakthrough is necessary to put such a roadmap into motion. Its executive director, Fatih Birol: “Governments need to give international public finance institutions a strong strategic mandate to finance clean energy transitions in the developing world.” And there was the disappointment too of the recent G7 summit. Pakistan’s climate minister, Malik Amin Aslam, describing its announcement on climate finance, called it “peanuts in the face of an existential catastrophe.” Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University was even more blunt, and in an extended attack on the G7 argued that “it is hard to overstate the cynicism” of the elites’ repeated pledges, and repeated failures, to meet even their hoary and entirely inadequate promise to provide $100 billion a year – “a mere 0.2% of rich countries’ GDP.”

How much is enough? Keeping it in perspective

How much public climate finance do we need? It’s useful to consult the US Fair Shares NDC, which an ad hoc group of us recently drafted “as if” we were speaking for the U.S. In it, we argued that the U.S. fair share in an honest 1.5°C effort can usefully be seen as a 70% reduction of domestic emissions by 2030, supplemented by about $533 billion in international mitigation support: Half of that, say $267 billion, would make a fine “good faith down payment” in a process that would eventually involve similar fair share contributions from wealthy nations and individuals everywhere. This amount is for the 2021 – 2030 decade, so we’re talking about something on the order of $27 billion a year, to get the ball rolling.

This figure doesn’t include adaptation or loss and damage funding, both of which are absolutely critical, and both of which are impossible to cost-out in a rigorous way. A proper needs analysis would help, but the truth is that we can’t translate, say, the projected uninhabitability of the Earth’s equatorial belt into dollar terms. There’s only so much that quantification can do. Still, these are real numbers, conservatively and transparently derived, and poised carefully between the possible and the necessary.

Sound like a lot of money? It is. But let’s keep it in context. For instance, global military spending has reached $2 trillion a year.

Tom Athanasiou is an author and long-time political ecologist and technology critic with the EcoEquity, a project of Earth Island Institute.