In 2015, when the Paris Climate Agreement was ratified, the world had a focal point – a goal around which to build action. The challenge was, how to communicate what this goal meant for the world, and Australia?

At ClimateWorks, we live and breathe evidence and quantification: We explained in 2015 that ‘limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees’ as stated in the Paris Agreement, meant reaching net zero emissions by 2050. 

At that stage ‘net zero emissions’ was not widely understood: Those working in climate change, government, analysis and related technical fields had begun using the term, but it wasn’t commonly used outside these areas. The term, however, had been central to our seminal 2014 report ‘Pathways to Deep Decarbonisation by 2050: How Australia can prosper in a low carbon world’, co-authored with ANU. But there was some heavy lifting to do if we were to help make the phrase and its meaning mainstream. 

The year 2015 was also when I first started working in the communications team at ClimateWorks. I can remember extensive debate and conversations around whether we would say ‘net zero’ or ‘zero net’, as several peak bodies internationally were then calling it. Thrown into the mix were other terms like ‘carbon neutrality’. Understandably, there was  concern that the general public were not only unfamiliar with net zero, they may not understand its significance.

‘Net zero emissions’ may seem just a phrase, but it’s a really important phrase. It articulates a reference point for global climate action, an explicit target for the strategies of business and the policies of governments. At a time of confusion about what needs to be achieved to address the climate crisis, it provided a clear baseline from which progress could be measured, opportunities evaluated and ambition increased.

As an organisation, we decided to act boldly. If ‘net zero’ was not yet well understood,  we would help make it so. Our work was respected and had already been quoted in the development of both public and private sector decarbonisation pathways.  We presented evidence to show pathways to a net zero emissions future and a safe climate, built confidence that solutions were not only  available but economically sound. Over months and years, we  increased understanding and use of the term net zero emissions amongst ever widening audiences. Five years on, the term has entered the mainstream vernacular. 

Setting the bar continues to be a consistent theme in our work. In 2020, together with CSIRO, we released our next major report, Decarbonisation Futures: Solutions, actions and benchmarks for a net zero emissions Australia. New analysis modelled an ‘all-in’ scenario – which represented a large increase in ambition. In 2014 we’d found that Australia could reduce emissions by 50 per cent in 2030. By 2020, we saw that a 75 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 was feasible, aligned with the more ambitious 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement, which sees better outcomes for human health and biodiversity. 

The Paris Agreement had committed signatories to limiting the rise in mean global temperature to ‘well below 2 degrees’, adding that limiting it to 1.5 degrees was ‘preferable’. Yet corporate and jurisdictional targets largely remained focused on 2 degrees. Given that a 2 degree target had also been central to our previous work, shifting our focus to 1.5 represented a major shift. But the data showed it was possible. So, in keeping with the intent of the Paris Agreement to continually ratchet ambitions, we reset the bar again.  

Now, with the widely covered IPCC 6th Assessment report in August 2021 emphasising that every additional 0.5°C of warming is causing clearly discernible increases in the intensity and frequency of heatwaves, damaging rainfall, and droughts, the world can no longer reasonably argue a 2 degree case. 

And as our CEO Anna Skarbek recently commented, when the Business Council of Australia came on board with this higher ambition, ‘the 1.5 degree pathway has become the new benchmark, not just the two degree one, and that makes it all move faster. We’ve seen the major international institutional investor groups now set that as their benchmark. The Science Based Trajectories initiative is rebasing everything to one point five.’ 

Since Decarbonisation Futures’ release, our work is again reaching far and wide. Our methodology and findings have been quoted in business planning, government commitments, and the media. In October 2021 alone, media mentions showed ClimateWorks reached a potential audience of 293 million people, with talk of 1.5 degrees featuring significantly. Amplification of our work through the media most recently culminated in a November piece by ABC News which  translated ClimateWorks’ analysis by sector, to show how we can get to net zero emissions and keep temperature below 1.5 degrees. 

Consistently, our work is ahead of public debate. We uncover what is possible, set the ambition and support it with evidence. This influences discussion, building confidence that converts to decisions and action. By leading the way, we have the evidence and pathways ready to run with as soon as others come on board.

We were able to demonstrate this with our Net Zero Momentum Tracker Corporate Action for 1.5 degrees  report, which drew the attention of sector-specific media including a leading manufacturing publication. Our States and Territory Climate Action analysis prompted RenewEconomy to state ‘ClimateWorks Australia put out a great short report a couple of weeks ago showing that if the government simply reflected the emissions reductions already committed to by states and territories, we would be putting forward a 37-42 per cent emissions reduction target for 2030.’ 

At ClimateWorks, we’re working to continue setting the bar high. To stay up to date with our work, sign up for our newsletter.