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Neutralizing the Atmosphere

November 17, 2022

“Disjunctive efforts toward net zero … threaten to undermine the legal, political, and physical foundations of the global project,” writes Prof. Shelley Welton.

Welton’s article is featured in Advances in Research, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s annual premier publication that highlights outstanding faculty research and scholarship. 

In “Neutralizing the Atmosphere,” published in the Yale Law Journal, Shelley Welton, Presidential Distinguished Professor of Law and Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, explores the potential risks of “net zero” carbon emissions pledges and argues that “[understanding these risks counsels for restructuring the public and private roles in net zero.”

Welton holds an affiliation with the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy in the Weitzman School. Her scholarship has also appeared in publications such as the California Law Review, Columbia Law Review, and Harvard Environmental Law Review. Prior to academia, Welton worked as the deputy director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

From Advances in Research: 

Heeding scientists’ conclusions that the world must reduce its overall atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, corporations and state actors across the globe have begun pledging to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions. In “Neutralizing the Atmosphere,” published in the Yale Law Journal, Welton explains why these net zero pledges raise “underdiagnosed” normative risks and offers guidance on how to alleviate them as the world works together to implement meaningful, life-saving climate solutions.

The Rise of Net Zero

Welton begins by reviewing recent historical events contributing to the prevailing contemporary paradigm of the “net zero pledge,” which essentially translates to a carbon emission-producing entity’s promise to invest in technology and/or natural resources that remove a comparable amount of carbon from the atmosphere.

In the 1990s, Integrated Assessment Models illustrated how global carbon emissions can be counterbalanced by carbon “sinks” that bring overall atmospheric emissions levels down. Drawing on these models, the U.S. advocated for a global framework — eventually incorporated into the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — which included both sinks and offsets in its calculation of countries’ emissions reductions targets.

In the two-plus decades since, this balancing exercise has been translated into thousands of individual pledges from countries, states, cities, and companies, each of which promises to net out its own emissions. But the translation of this global goal into a program of atomized net zero pledges presents significant practical and political challenges… .

Explore the rest of this piece on Welton’s pathbreaking work and more outstanding faculty research and scholarship in the 2022 edition of Advances in Research.