This article is part of our Sustainability 101 series. We created this collection of articles to provide an introduction for those entering the sustainability space for the first time.
Getting started – what does net zero mean?
According to the UN Net Zero Coalition, Net zero means reducing greenhouse gas emissions to as “close to zero as possible”, and then offsetting remaining emissions by re-absorbing them from the atmosphere, for instance, by oceans and forests.
The term is often confused with the concept of “carbon-neutrality”, but these don’t mean the same thing. Carbon-neutral refers to the balance between the amount of carbon we emit into the atmosphere and the amount that’s removed from it.
So, Net zero focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whereas carbon-neutrality focuses on offsetting carbon emissions.
Is carbon dioxide the only problem?
It’s easy to assume that all of our problems are the result of just carbon dioxide, especially as it’s usually named as the culprit. But, that’s not the case. Several greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming; such as:
- Carbon dioxide (CO2)
- Methane (CH4)
- Nitrous oxide (N2O)
- Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
- Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
- Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)
- Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)
With that said, carbon dioxide is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere at around 80% of the total volume.
Why do we need to hit net zero?
Greenhouse gases impact the planet’s ecology by trapping solar energy and heat instead of allowing it to return to space. Too much solar energy causes the planet to warm, hence the term “global warming”.
Earth’s environment is delicate. Warming the planet by just a few degrees has wide-reaching implications; such as:
|Rising sea levels due to melting glaciers|
|Heat waves, droughts, and storms becoming more frequent|
|Loss of wildlife habitats|
Each of these, in turn, has broader knock on effects that are seriously harmful to businesses, communities, and ecosystems.
When do we need to hit net zero?
In December 2015, 195 nations adopted The Paris Agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21). The agreement states that any global temperature increase must be limited to no more than 1.5 °C over that of the pre-industrial era (1850 – 1900).
|Note: The Earth is already 1.1° C (1.9° F) warmer than it was between 1850 and 1900, the pre-industrial era, the repercussions of which are already being seen.|
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that to remain consistent with limiting of global average temperatures to 1.5 °C, we’ll need to be net zero emissions by 2050. But, global greenhouse gas emissions must also peak and begin their decline no later than 2025, and be reduced by at least 43% by 2030, before finally hitting net zero in 2050.
What if we don’t reach net zero by 2050?
If we’re unable to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, scientists project that we’ll begin to see irreversible changes to our planet. Climate impacts that we already see today will continue to worsen.
Ice caps will continue to melt, causing sea levels to rise significantly. Communities and ecosystems will be displaced. Supply chains will be devastated, and our way of life will be forever changed.
How can we reach net zero?
Transitioning to net zero requires a complete transformation of how we produce, consume, and move about.
Avoidance vs Offset
Carbon avoidance means the reduction or removal of carbon production at source. Replacing CO2 emitting gas power plants with renewable technologies such as solar or wind is one example.
Carbon offset requires us to design and build methods to extract and store carbon from the atmosphere. For example, one approach would be to plant carbon-absorbing algae farms, or collecting and storing carbon underground.
|Note: The planting of forests is one way to help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But, it takes a long time for a tree to mature enough to remove the levels of carbon that are needed.|
Companies that can’t directly incorporate these methods into their operations can work with third parties to buy carbon credits. These credits are used to fund projects with the goal of avoiding or removing carbon.
Measure it, Mange it
In order to understand the key areas of climate change, we first need to measure it. Identifying the processes that produce greenhouse gases. For example, almost three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector alone.
Businesses are also encouraged to report on their impact through emission scoping. By calculating their output across their whole value chain into 3 segments.
Once we clearly understand the contributing factors, we can work to establish better mechanisms (such as circular economies) to reduce sources of greenhouse gases both upstream and downstream; for example:
- Upstream: Replacing polluting coal, gas and oil-fired power with energy from renewable sources, such as wind or solar.
- Downstream: Improving the efficiency of energy using products or processes. This was illustrated when halogen light bulbs were replaced by LEDs that use 10 times less energy.
So, what’s next?
Due to increased pressure from governments and the public, organisations are working hard to reduce their emissions. Here at Sustainable Future News, we’ll continue to publish news, interviews, and case studies of how people and businesses are working to achieve net-zero – stay tuned.
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