With Many Nations Setting Increasingly Tough Targets for Reaching Net Zero, Why Aren’t We Instead Going further, and Chasing ‘Zero’ carbon?
What is Net Zero?
‘Net Zero’ is increasingly being utilised in key messaging relating to climate change and sustainability by subject matter experts, government officials, and the public alike. Fundamentally, Net Zero means “ensuring that any human-produced carbon dioxide or other planet-warming gases that can’t be avoided or stored, are instead removed from the atmosphere in an alternative way.”[i] Approaches towards achieving net zero may include using renewable energy resources, or the use of carbon off-setting. Carbon off-setting may include features such as the planting of trees (reforestation), carbon credits, whereby businesses and individuals may pay towards environmentally friendly projects, or other schemes which see carbon-producing activities paid off with other green activities.
However, there are concerns by some that off-setting simply masks, or helps to alleviate criticism, around polluting activities, and industries: “Some of offsetting’s critics have been particularly vocal. Greenpeace describes it as paying lip service to action, saying: ‘When compared to ideas like frequent fliers paying more and more heavily for trips abroad, carbon offsetting transport falls very short.’”[ii]
Many Nations Are Now Setting Net Zero Targets…
Along with the numerous companies, cities, and authorities, creating their own Net Zero commitments, now more than 130 countries have set, or are considering a target of reducing emissions. Many of these targets are for 2050, by which we will see significant reductions in carbon emissions made. Given that this is just 28 years away, there are significant challenges and time pressures ahead. Thus far, only two countries in the world have reached Net Zero: Bhutan and Suriname.
Source: UN, referencing WRI
In the UK specifically, a Net Zero goal was first set in June 2019, with the UK becoming the first G7 economy to set a legally binding target to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to “net-zero” by 2050. Today, 78% of emissions come from just four sectors in the United Kingdom: transportation, energy supply, business (commercial energy use) and residential (home energy use).[iii] To combat this, the UK government set out it’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution in November 2020. This aimed to utilise the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to change behaviours, invest in green strategies, and accelerate the UK’s move towards Net Zero:
“As the world looks to recover from the impact of coronavirus on our lives, livelihoods and economies, we have the chance to build back better: to invest in making the UK a global leader in green technologies. The plan focuses on increasing ambition in the following areas:
1. advancing offshore wind
2. driving the growth of low carbon hydrogen
3. delivering new and advanced nuclear power
4. accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles
5. green public transport, cycling and walking
6. ‘jet zero’ and green ships
7. greener buildings
8. investing in carbon capture, usage and storage
9. protecting our natural environment
10. green finance and innovation”[iv]
What is Preventing Us from Striving for ‘Zero’?
The big question is why are we hearing of commitments to ‘Net Zero’, and simply not striving for Zero: cutting all emissions completely? The answer is complex, however it ultimately ties into issues around cost, economic factors, as well as logistics, and technology. While some industries, activities, and life-style habits can see a total cut in carbon emissions, others simply cannot.
Take for example the use of electric vehicles, whilst pure electric vehicles emit no carbon emissions, they still require electricity to run; even if this supplied electricity has been produced sustainably (say from wind) there are emissions created in the production of the car, the mining of lithium for the battery, the shipping of parts. It is due to this that a balance is required; reducing carbon emissions in certain areas, cutting these to zero where reasonably possible, and off-setting and investing in the environment, can work to create an overall ‘Net Zero’ in emissions.