Net-Zero Investments Part 1: Apollo 11 and SMART Goals

By Richard Howard

In 1961 President Kennedy gave a speech that fired the starting gun on one of the single most impressive human endeavours, the Apollo Space Program. 400,000 people and tens of billions of dollars later human-beings walked upon the lunar surface for the first time, neatly completing the goal that JFK set just over 8 year before.

The story has been deservedly told countless times and there are many lessons that can be taken from the original ‘moonshot’. The current climate change and decarbonisation ‘moonshot’ could definitely make use of these lessons, especially regarding the setting of clear and coherent goals. Something which the ESG and green finance industry have been trying relentlessly to achieve.


There are many aspects of the Apollo Program to which its success can be attributed: employing skilled engineers, scientists, and astronauts; the use of integrated circuits for the guidance computer; the ability to learn from mistakes and acknowledge harsh truths after the Apollo 1 fire.

The very first success, however, arguably occurred during JFK’s speech to a joint session of the US Congress on the 25th May 1961 announcing America’s intention to go to the moon, and can be neatly summed up in the following quote:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” President Kennedy, 1961

It has been widely commented upon [1, 2, 3, 4] that in during that speech JFK set out a ‘SMART Goal’ for the entire project from day one. SMART Goals are a project management tool to smoothly communicate a discrete objective. I.e. a goal that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound [5]:

Specific: “Land a man on the moon, and return him safely to earth”.

Measurable: Land a man on the moon and return him to earth, mission complete; fail to land a man on the moon and return him to earth, mission failed.

Achievable: During the Eisenhower administration design work had been commissioned to test the feasibility of a variety of space missions, including a crewed moon mission. These were put to JFK in early May 1961 where he selected the crewed moon mission as the sole priority [6, 7].

Relevant: Space race with the Russians and demonstration of US technical superiority. The selection of the crewed moon mission in early May 1961 was given additional impetus due to the Soviets successfully launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit a month earlier.

Time-bound: “Before this decade is out”. Simple and clear deadline of 31st December 1969.

The NASA administrators, project, planners, scientists and engineers now had a strong foundation upon which they could construct the Apollo Program. It was appropriately bounded in time and scope, judged to be achievable, and for a justifiable cause.

Net-Zero by 2050 – SMART Goal for Climate Change?

Since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement two key concepts have entered the public debate on climate change mitigation. Firstly, the idea that limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C is crucial to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and secondly, that in order to achieve this CO2 emission and absorption rates have to balance by 2050 [8]. That is, CO2 emissions have to be reduced a level to achieve ‘net-zero’ by 2050 (for the moment only CO2 will be considered and not other greenhouse gases). So is this a SMART Goal?

Specific: The annual amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere must be equal to or less than the CO2 absorbed by carbon sinks.

Measurable: Judged a success if the concentration of CO2 remains constant year-on-year or decreases.

Achievable: The IPCC has released several models or pathways of how countries can reduce their CO2 emissions via embracing new technologies and reduction in consumption of energy and other goods. Furthermore, existing ecosystems can be enhanced to improve CO2 absorption as well as adopting carbon capture technologies [9].

Relevant: If global temperature increases are not kept below 1.5°C then widespread damage to natural systems, human systems, and possibly life on Earth could occur [9].

Time-bound: Deadline of 2050

As a first pass net-zero by 2050 can be considered a SMART goal, it fits the various criteria neatly and this in turn clarifies the message.

However, it is not quite that simple…

There are a few issues that must be noted. Firstly, the Earth’s ecosystems and climate is a complex system, as well as the global economy, therefore some methods of decreasing CO2 emissions or increasing CO2 absorption may be oversimplified with respect to the SMART goal and may create unintended consequences. For example, one 2012 paper states that seaweed forests that covered 9% of the world’s oceans could take CO2 concentrations back to pre-industrial levels but with these simple ambitious schemes there are serious risks of other serious side-effects such as disrupting the nitrogen cycle [10].

Secondly, other greenhouse gases exist besides CO2, for example methane and nitrogen dioxide. In some cases these are related to CO2 emissions so if CO2 levels falls they will fall, but this is not universal. Therefore, separate goals would be required to address these greenhouse gases. Thirdly, CO2 emission needs to decrease from now and continue to decrease steadily until 2050, not continue at the same level and then abruptly stop in 2050.

Net-zero Investments

The ESG, ethical, sustainable, and/or green investment industries are constantly crying out for more definitions and standardisation of terminology, with the view that a lack of a common approach is holding back a great tidal wave of green finance and green investment.

Climate change is not the sole focus of these investments. Biodiversity, plastic use, ocean health, and more, are also considered important, but climate change is arguably the largest factor behind the uptake of green and sustainable investments.

By strictly following the net-zero SMART goal the climate analysis for these investments can be quickly rationalised. Strict net-zero investments could serve to provide more concrete goals for the climate goals in ESG, green, and sustainable investments, as well as a clear marketing tool for fund managers.

As a result it is possible for funds to introduce this as a investment selection criteria: Is this a net-zero investment now? Will it be a net-zero investment between now and 2050? Taking this even further, funds could offer net-zero investment portfolios, consisting solely of holdings that are already net-zero businesses.


In reality an ambitious objective is never simple, whatever the ‘moonshot’ is. Even the actual moonshot had thousands more complications than anyone could have imagined when Kennedy addressed Congress.

But, that said, the communication of the end goal was super clear: “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

The same could be applied to the climate challenge facing us: “before the middle of the century has passed, the annual amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere should equal or be less than is absorbed”.

Simple and clear goals can help to focus minds and make planning simpler.


  5. There are other versions of the acronym but this one of the most commonly accepted –

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