Net Zero Tracker volunteer programme expands to global universities

Successful citizen science project expands beyond the University of Oxford; channelling student climate concerns into personal action, while boosting data skills and employability

12 JUL 2023

The Net Zero Tracker, a research consortium that tracks the integrity of net zero targets, is expanding its student volunteer programme to all universities, enabling students to help hold the world’s largest entities to account for carbon pollution.

The Tracker’s data collection model was established in 2021, when it began building a cohort of 200+ University of Oxford volunteers who regularly assess the targets of 200 countries, almost 2,000 large regions and cities, and the largest 2,000 publicly-listed companies in the world. In total, the volunteers collect data on 4,000+ entities from a wide variety of public sources, including annual reports and climate policy documents.

Camilla Hyslop, Net Zero Tracker data lead, said:

“The number of companies, financial institutions, and subnational governments setting climate commitments continues to grow, so, in turn, we’re expanding the capacity of the Tracker’s volunteer programme.

“We’re inviting other students and higher education institutions to participate in a citizen science project with an outsized impact on the climate crisis.”

In the last 2.5 years, the NZT has established a key role as an independent source of truth on the integrity of climate commitments. Its findings have been reported in more than 400 media clippings, including Time Magazine, ‘John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight’ and the Financial Times. Decision makers from British Prime Minister Sunak to Commissioner Crenshaw of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission have cited the Tracker data.

The Tracker’s recently launched Net Zero Stocktake was viewed more than 2.1 million times in media outlets around the world, and drove millions of social media engagements, including from Greta Thunberg and world-renowned climate scientist Michael Mann.

Fellow Tracker data lead, Natasha Lutz, commented on the benefits for universities and students from joining the volunteer programme:

“We see that when students volunteer to track net zero commitments their knowledge of climate change rises steeply, as do their research skills. They also report a sense of fulfilment that comes from taking personal action on a defining issue for humankind.

“The knowledge gained through the Tracker volunteer programme opens doors for students in the future. Demand for ‘net zero literacy’ is high and rising fast - both in the climate community and the corporate space, as companies look to implement their net zero goals.”

“The volunteers were recently awarded the Oxford Vice Chancellor’s Environmental Sustainability Award for their efforts, and we’re looking forward to our next chapter, as we invite other universities to join the race to the top on net zero.”

How students and universities can get involved:

There’s no criteria for involvement in the programme. The Tracker welcomes university students of all academic backgrounds and levels. As no climate knowledge is required, the Tracker provides training on what net zero means, as well as how to assess the quality of net zero and other emissions targets. New volunteers’ confidence is further bolstered by the knowledge that the Tracker uses a double review process, meaning that their drafts will always be reviewed by another volunteer.

The Tracker’s new volunteer hub provides all of the information that students need to get going: an overview of the Tracker, volunteering and opportunities for recognition of their contribution. The hub also houses all the training materials that students can access once they have joined the team. Students joining the Tracker also receive a bi-weekly newsletter, providing news, jobs and events in the net zero sphere. Interested students and universities should email to get involved.

The Tracker consortium comprises Oxford Net Zero; The University of North Carolina (UNC)’s Data Driven Enviro Lab; the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (UK), and NewClimate Institute (Germany).

To boost the efforts of the volunteers, NZT partner Data Driven Envirolab (DDL) in partnership with Arboretica is using AI and NLP-driven approaches. The ‘Net-Zero HERO project, or ‘High-Performance Extraction and Retrieval Operation’, uses machine learning techniques to increase the efficiency and scalability of tracking climate targets. It systematically collects data from public documents that mention net zero targets, while checking reliability, accuracy, and relevancy. Volunteers then only need to validate the data’s accuracy. This has dramatically increased the speed of data collection, reducing the manual labour hours required by between 200 and 300%. The next phase of the HERO project will involve the development of ChatNetZero, which will provide an easy-to-use interface for interacting with the Tracker’s underlying corpus of data, and allow for interactive querying of entities’ decarbonization efforts. DDL and Arboretica are planning to release a pilot version of ChatNetZero in time for September’s New York Climate Week.

A paper released before the 2021 COP26 climate summit by the UK Universities Climate Network concluded that a lack of Climate Change Education (CCE) provision could lead to a “growing reputational, financial and human resource risk to institutions,” given the increasing demand from students and employers for such skills as economies decarbonise.


Notes to editors:

About Net Zero Tracker (NZT):

Net Zero Tracker is the most comprehensive and up-to-date database of net zero commitments made by nations, states & regions, cities and major companies. It includes:

  • all UNFCCC member states and a selected number of territories;

  • subnational states and regions in the 25 largest emitting countries;9

  • all cities around the world with populations over 500,000;

  • Publicly-traded companies that were listed in the Forbes Global 2000 in 2020.10

Using a combination of automated web data-scraping and manual searching by volunteer data analysts working in a range of languages, the Tracker gathers and collates data on the status of net zero targets and robustness parameters across these 4000+ entities. Parameters include the existence of interim targets, intentions regarding offsetting, the existence of a published plan, and what the target covers in terms of greenhouse gases and emission scopes.

NZT is an independent research consortium, comprising The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU); Data-Driven EnviroLab (UNC); NewClimate Institute; and Oxford Net Zero.

At the core of the NZT database is a cohort of student volunteers, primarily from the University of Oxford, who scrutinise the robustness of targets of all UNFCCC member countries, all cities with populations greater than 500,000, all regions in the top 25-emitting countries, and all of the 2,000 largest public companies. NZT applies advanced AI/ML approaches to automatically extract key data points on net zero targets to increase the efficiency and scalability of data collection.


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