ISO Releases Net Zero Guidelines at COP27 Urging the World to Double Down on the 1.5° C Target

ISO has launched the first globally agreed Net Zero Guidelines.  Launched at COP27, the Net Zero guidelines seek to tackle a major roadblock for a world where greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and balanced by attempting to remedy the fragmented net zero governance landscape.  This landmark publication provides much-needed guidance and clarifies key concepts and terminology around Net Zero, as competing approaches and concepts for net zero only serve to sow confusion. 

In little over a year, 1200 organizations and experts from more than 100 countries have produced a document through ISO’s International Workshop Agreement process that provides clear, harmonized definitions and guidance, agreed upon through a collaborative and consensus-based process; the resulting Guidelines provide a common reference for collective efforts, offering a global basis for harmonizing, understanding and planning for net zero for actors at the state, regional, city, and organizational level and lay out the foundation for accountability and reporting.

“This is something…perhaps the best document you will ever need to read.  If you’re in the media, the press, in government, in policy, in corporations, a chief executive, a mayor of a city, this is the one document that you need.  Because you can use this, it’s a reference document.  It’s not setting targets, it’s not telling you what to do or when to do it, it’s helping us all have a common language for how we’re going to make progress for our transition plans, with our reporting, with our delivery of the net zero ambition.  So it’s an ambitious document.  It takes science into account.  It addresses the challenges of fair transition, and we look forward really very much to seeing it taken up anew around the world by policymakers, governments, industry, and civil society, and I think that we should be really proud of that achievement to position ourselves at the leading edge of global cooperation in tackling the climate change agenda.” – Scott Steedman, CBE Director, Standards at the BSI, COP27 ISO Net Zero Guidelines Launch Press Conference

What Is an ISO International Workshop Agreement?

International Workshop Agreements (IWAs) are prepared through a workshop mechanism outside of ISO committee structures in order to respond to urgent market requirements, giving the opportunity for a broad range of stakeholders to participate.  The results are approved by consensus among the participants in the workshop and, if the topic is covered within the scope of an existing committee, the material is automatically allocated to this committee for ongoing maintenance.  The agreements are reviewed every 3 years after publication, as opposed to the ISO policy of 5-year reviews for standards, and can be further processed as Publicly Available Specifications, Technical Specifications, or even as International Standards.  The agreements can only stand for six years on their own and will then either be withdrawn or converted into one of these other types of ISO documents.

This particular document, based on a topic that is urgent in nature with many global stakeholders making it well-suited for the process, held broad consensus with more than 1,200 experts from over 100 countries contributing to its text, making it an effective common reference for net zero guidance.

As a guidance document, the terms “should”, “may”, and “can” are defined and used throughout, but “shall” does not make an appearance.  The document seeks to give guidance on achieving a ‘climate positive future’ by paving the way for ‘a more consistent approach for future interventions and deliverables’; while some are starting to see the Paris Agreement as being outdated and impractical, the new ISO document both embraces and differentiates itself from the 2015 Agreement by taking for granted the importance of achieving a global balance between human-caused emissions by sources and human-led removals via GHG sinks (processes that remove greenhouse gasses) with respect for varying capabilities in different parts of the world, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, and expands on these concepts to provide recommendations on equity and wider impact. 

The document states that it seeks to provide guidance on taking action to address all direct and indirect GHG emissions in an organization’s value chain – and doubles down on the ideal ‘1.5° C’ target set by the Paris Agreement with a defined sense of urgency, highlighting the need to not only adhere to this target but see it realized by 2050 at the latest, with organizations with high historical GHG emissions needing to achieve net zero well before this target date in order to make a fair contribution in the global effort.  The document also notes that it is not intended to provide guidance on carbon neutrality for organizations or for products and services – information on carbon neutrality is provided in ISO 14068 – but focuses on the reduction of GHG emissions.  Kaya Axelsson, Net Zero Policy Engagement Fellow at University of Oxford, stated at the ISO guidelines launch press conference when asked about this distinction, “Carbon neutrality is a point to net zero…net zero is a much higher standard [that is] sustained over time.”  The document states “Reduction of GHG emissions is prioritized for interim and long-term net zero targets, with removals used after all possible emissions reduction actions have been taken, to minimize eventual residual emissions.”

Doubling Down on the 1.5° C Target

“Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges the world faces.  Scientific assessments through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports have shown that many of the worst consequences of climate change can be avoided by limiting global warming to 1,5° C above pre-industrial levels.  The global temperature is already over 1° C above pre-industrial levels, and scenarios assessed by the IPCC indicate that limiting warming to 1,5°, with no or limited temperature overshoot, requires achieving at least net zero global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the 2050s, along with deep and sustained global reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).”

“This document provides guidance on what governance organizations and other organizations can do to effectively contribute to global efforts to limit warming to 1,5° C by achieving net zero no later than 2050.  It provides guidance on a common and equitable contribution and recognizes the capability of individual organizations in contributing to achieving global net zero.  This document, when used in combination with applicable science-based pathways, provides guidance for organizations seeking to set robust climate strategies.” -Excerpts from IQA 42:2022 Net Zero Guidelines

But Is It Too Late For Us To Attain the 1.5°C Target?  Will it Be Enough?

The cover story for the November 5th edition of The Economist, written in the lead-up to the event in COP27 event in Egypt that will stand to be as pivotal for climate change as was the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, warns, “The world is missing its lofty comate targets.  [It’s] time for some realism.”

The article suggests that it is too late to have enough of an impact via climate policy and action to stay below the 1.5° C target; that the private and public sectors have simply not done enough to see this goal realized.  The article posits that we ought to come to grips with the reality that we’ve passed the point of no return – at least regarding this target – and need to accept that, with the reality that the world is already about 1.2° C hotter than the pre-industrial era – there is ‘no way Earth can now avoid a temperature rise of more than 1.5° C’, but that ‘there is still hope that the overshoot may not be too big, and maybe only temporary, but even these consoling possibilities are becoming ever less likely’; an incredibly pessimistic appraisal, for sure.

It’s not all doom and gloom in the article.  They note that it is naïve to not accept this reality and those reluctant to do so prolong the ‘mistakes made in Paris’, saying that the world adopted a ‘Herculean goal without any plausible plan of reaching it’.  The article outlines three ‘hard truths’ that optimists – meaning those still trying to get the world in concert to meet the 1.5° C target – need to consider:

  1. Cutting emissions will require a lot of investment, estimating that the global investment in clean energy will need to triple from today’s $1trn a year.  This point also highlights the moral imperative of lending and giving aid to poorer countries to help them to reach their emissions goals – meaning rich countries, in the words of the ISO Guidelines, may need to do more than their ‘fair share’.
  2. Abandoning fossil fuels will not happen overnight.  There are no immediate alternatives to fossil fuels to wholly replace them as an energy source.  While there have been global strides to move toward renewable energy sources, we are not producing renewables at a rate to make the replacement of fossil fuels viable – and this reality has been compounded by global conflict restraining supply chains and causing governments to scramble to build facilities needed to produce more natural gas, and this says nothing of the lobbying and denialism that works to impede global efforts.
  3. The last hard truth takes for granted that the 1.5° C target will be missed and makes the argument that greater efforts need to be made for adaptation.  They argue that efforts for adaption have been neglected – mainly because of the naïve adherence to the 1.5° C target that they now see as an impossible goal – but it can be neglected no longer as the reality of the world facing more floods, droughts, storms, and wildfires make it undeniable that parallel efforts, in large scale, need to be made by governments to adapt, even if these policies seem contradictory to the notion that we will achieve the 1.5° C target.

“We’re seeing this really exponential growth in voluntary action, but, at the same time…we know that we are so far off for the goal that we need to achieve by 2030.  With that, we know that voluntarism alone isn’t enough to deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement.  We really need this much closer collaboration and what our climate champions like to call this ambition loop between what the non-state actors are doing and then providing the confidence and the signals to the national governments, and the regulators, and the policymakers to know that they can go further and faster.” – Fiona Macklin, Race to Zero Campaign Manager at UN High Level Climate Champions, COP27 ISO Net Zero Guidelines Launch Press Conference

The new ISO guidelines acknowledge the skepticism and include a section for ‘transparency, integrity and accountability’ that establishes the need for firms to provide to the public comprehensive information relating to current emissions status, baseline, targets, and plans for reduction, and for independent monitoring to take place to ensure that commitments are supported by meaningful actions to reduce reductions and meet the 1.5° C global target.  The document urges not only that this information is regularly shared with the public, but also urges firms to not overstate their achievements – acknowledging the inevitable tendency for folks to sacrifice their integrity to disclose publicly great gains while doing the public no real favors by overstating the actual progress.  Progress, then, as the document states, are to be verified through credible and competent third parties.

Overall, the guidelines maintain a positive tone, while highlighting the urgent nature of the efforts, highlighting how intentional global efforts can realistically achieve the 1.5° C target by 2050.  Of course, the document serves as a testament that standards are necessary for this to truly become a concerted global effort, and the document suggests that governance organizations setting regulations on net zero will need to start with larger organizations and in sectors that have the largest emissions, setting requirements for annual third-party verification of emissions and reporting, absolute emissions reductions targets, and full information about science-based implementation plans and timelines, but also pushes for large organizations that have historically had large emissions impact to set more ambitious targets, such as going beyond their fair share of 50% global GHG emissions reductions by 2030, as an example.

In order to give appropriate guidance on methods of reducing and removing emissions in ways that can help firms and governing organizations meet interim and ultimate targets, emissions are broken down into Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 emissions, being defined as:

  • Scope 1 emissions – direct GHG emissions, greenhouse gas emissions from sources owned or directly controlled by the organization.  Targets for reduction should include emissions from:
    • Physical or chemical processingTransportation of materials, products, waste, people, etc., and from the combustion of fuels in mobile combustion sources owned or controlled by the organizationIntentional or unintentional fugitive emissions from equipment leaks, joints, seals, gaskets, etc.
    • The generation of electricity, heat or steam as a result of the combustion of fuels in stationary sources, such as boilers, furnaces, turbines, etc.
  • Scope 2 emissions – indirect GHG emissions from purchased energy, greenhouse gas emission from the generation of purchased electricity, heat, cooling or steam consumed by the organization.  Targets in scope for Scope 2 emissions:
    • Targets to reduce energy consumption through improving energy efficiency and switching to the use and production of renewable and low-carbon energy sources
  • Scope 3 emissions – indirect GHG emissions, greenhouse gas emission that is a consequence of the organization’s activities but arises from sources that are not owned or directly controlled by the organization.
    • The organization should set long-term net zero targets for the removal of all Scope 3 emissions, such as those from deforestation, degradation, and conversion of natural resources for housing and industrial use
    • The organization should focus on reducing value chain emissions by considering if a product or service is necessary – taking a “buy less” approach

By breaking emissions into these categories, organizations are more well-able to set appropriate and separate targets with separate plans for achieving them for each type of emission, with each being equally and fully accounted for in the firm’s overall reduction strategy.

The guidance also urges for sector-specific planning, in which targets for emissions reduction are based on sectors that have the greatest impact, for example:

Forest, Land, and Agriculture72%
Iron and Steel93%
Service Building99.6%
Residential Buildings97.9%

“[in part because of these Guidelines, there is] a really clear signal that there is harmonization, that there is a consensus around what needs to be done, now we need to go out and do it…and now with the granularity and detail as to the how, so really it is about now helping each other accelerate dramatically the implementation – making sure this is a race we all win, otherwise we are all going to lose it.” – Fiona Macklin, COP27 ISO Net Zero Guidelines Launch Press Conference

Through empowerment by the way of training, awareness, and allocation of resources, and through global commitment being illustrated through concerted efforts to plan for emission reduction; to build science-based strategies for reduction; by taking decisive mitigating actions to meet interim and long-term goals to improve Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions; and through monitoring, measuring, and reporting of progress, the international community still believes that we can meet our 1.5° C target that we outlined in the Paris Agreement in 2015. 

While some are skeptical that this can be achieved, suggesting that those who met in Egypt ‘should be chastened by failure, not lulled by false hope’, and vie for moving goalposts, solar geoengineering, and global adoptionism, these ‘solutions’ have a potential of being devastating for millions of lives, cost exuberant amounts of money globally, and may prove to be ineffective or lock us into maintaining our solar geoengineered solutions without end to guarantee survival, increasing risks of mechanical failure, terrorist threat, or any number of other things that might jeopardize the mechanisms that maintain our way of life.  But it cannot be ignored that we may be too late to truly never pass the 1.5° C target – even if temporarily – and that, at the risk of cheapening the lofty goals or suggesting that we’ve moved goalposts, more effort will be needed to prepare the world to adapt to our hotter reality in parallel with the massive investment that will be needed to get climate back on track to meet 2030 and 2050 goals.  The ISO guidelines – which were established with the intent that they would be transferred eventually to an international standard and maintained in perpetuity – are optimistic but also press a sense of urgency in the situation, both not out of naivete, but of necessity. The Guidelines can be downloaded from ISO for free HERE.


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