Governments urged to go beyond net zero climate targets

Leading scientists and campaigners say cutting emissions alone is not enough

Spring leaf growth on young birch trees growing in a forestry plantation.
Spring leaf growth on young birch trees growing in a forestry plantation. Photograph: MediaWorldImages/Alamy

Leading scientists, academics and campaigners have called on governments and businesses to go beyond “net zero” in their efforts to tackle the escalating climate and ecological crisis.

The former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the leading climate scientist Michael Mann are among a group of prominent environmentalists calling for the “restoration of the climate” by removing “huge amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere”.

Net zero targets have been a focus of governments, local authorities and campaigners in their attempts to address global heating. The authors of Friday’s letter, however, say that although stopping emissions is “a necessary prerequisite”, governments and businesses must be more ambitious and work to “restore the climate” to as safe a level as possible.

“The climate crisis is here now,” the letter states. “No matter how quickly we reach zero emissions, the terrible impacts of the climate crisis will not just go away … As such, no matter how quickly it is done, solely cutting emissions is not enough.”

The idea of removing emissions from the atmosphere – either directly from the air or by capturing it from power plants – has been a strongly debated subject among environmentalists and engineers for years.

Critics point out that it has proved difficult to replicate the technology at scale and that constructing the necessary machinery would itself be environmentally damaging.

Many fear that the idea of carbon capture is a “technological fix” used as an excuse by corporations which are opposed to the radical changes needed to move to a zero-carbon economy.

Q&A

How to tackle air pollution

What are the best policies to reduce air pollution?

Most air pollution is produced by the burning of fossil fuels and waste, and this is the focus of the World Health Organization’s global recommendations:

  • Moving from coal and gas power stations and diesel generators to solar, wind and hydropower
  • Prioritise walking, cycling and public transport over cars in urban areas and shift to electric cars
  • Improve the energy efficiency of homes to reduce heating needs and avoid coal and wood burning inside
  • Promote waste reduction and use incineration only when unavoidable and when emissions controls are in place
  • Reduce the burning of stubble in fields upwind of cities
  • Create green spaces in cities to help remove some pollutants

In the UK, the government’s extensive research shows deterring polluting vehicles from city and town centres is by far the quickest, most cost-effective way to cut levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution, which are at illegal levels in most urban areas.

Other policies include:

  • Retrofitting of buses, heavy goods vehicles and taxis, which is the next most effective option
  • Scrappage schemes for older, polluting vehicles and subsidies for electric vehicles can also help

What are the best ways to avoid air pollution?

The solution to air pollution is stopping it at source but until that happens, experts including the British Lung Foundation (BLF) suggest the following:

  • Avoid spending long periods of time in places where pollution builds up, such as busy roads
  • If you travel on foot or a bike, using backstreet routes away from congested roads can cut exposure by half. Even on busy streets, cyclists experience less pollution than drivers
  • Some scientists recommend parents use covers on their buggies to protect infants
  • Go to work earlier, before the rush hour has begun and levels of pollution have built up
  • When air pollution is high and if you have lung condition such as asthma, reduce or avoid strenuous outdoor exercise, or do your exercise inside
  • There is very little evidence to recommend the use of face masks, according to the BLF


However, there is a growing body of evidence that natural solutions – protecting and restoring natural forests and habitats and allowing native trees to repopulate deforested land – could help remove large amounts of carbon.

The letter, which is also signed by the Guardian columnist George Monbiot and several leading members of the global school climate strike movement, said their call for restoration was not about “promoting one specific removal technique, but supporting the basic aim of trying to restore the climate”.

The letter adds: “We urge activists to start including restoration in their campaigning. We urge governments and companies to start acting, not only to reach net zero as soon as possible, but to achieve restoration as well. And we urge every citizen to do what they can to make the dream of restoration a reality.”