Green Recovery

Net-zero – A new international norm?

By Mathieu Blondeel, Warwick University, UK


This text first appeared in Dutch on the website of Knack Magazine – it has been translated and modified by the author


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 the same by 2060. The EU had already made the 2050 target a pillar of its Green Deal.

These announcements are good news for the climate. 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, with these three Asian countries joining the net-zero club, two-thirds of the world’s coal use (the dirtiest of fossil fuels) and nearly half of its emissions are now covered by national or regional net-zero objectives.

Importantly, these announcements 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 as morally acceptable (or reprehensible) 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, the women’s suffrage or multilateral arms control. They form a vital aspect of international relations.

One important strength of such norms is that they do not necessarily have to be enforced directly. 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, and 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 much actors as possible?

New actors and climate clubs

States, of course, are no longer the only relevant actors in international relations. Sub-national governments (cities or provinces), international organisations, NGOs and multinationals are also of great importance to help spread the norm. 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.

Coming back to states, another way for them to accelerate norm diffusion is through a so-called “climate club.” In such a club, a group of countries decides on working 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 can levy taxes on the import of carbon-intensive products, for example.

A norm, however, is only successful if a broad group of actors, 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. 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 several challenges remain. I highlight 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 are not aligned and there is far from full agreement on how to practically reach the set targets.

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 based much more on the bottom-up architecture of Kyoto’s successor, the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Third, the role of the United States remains crucial. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has already committed to the norm and he has vowed to take up a leading role in climate diplomacy. President Trump, on the other hand, has taken the complete opposite position. But whoever ends up winning, relations with China have significantly cooled. Restoring bilateral relations and intensifying climate cooperation between the two will be difficult, even under a Biden presidency.

In the end, however, 2020 is on course to be the warmest year on record. So accelerated action is 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.


About the author: Dr. Mathieu Blondeel is a Research Fellow at the Warwick Business School where he is working on a project “UK Energy in a Global Context”, funded by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC). He is interested in issues at the intersection of global energy and climate politics, specifically the geopolitics of the energy transformation.

An updated version of this post can also be accessed here: https://ukerc.ac.uk/news/net-zero-a-new-international-norm/

Suggested further readings

Bataille, CGF. (2020). Physical and policy pathways to net‐zero emissions industry. WIREs Climate Change. 11  https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.633

Eisenhauer, D. C. (2016) Pathways to Climate Change Adaptation: Making Climate Change Action Political. Geography Compass, 10: 207– 221. doi: 10.1111/gec3.12263.

Walker, G., Karvonen, A. and Guy, S. (2016), Reflections on a policy denouement: the politics of mainstreaming zero‐carbon housing. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41: 104-106. doi:10.1111/tran.12104

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