The Climate Crisis: What Is ‘Net Zero’ and How Do We Get There?
As countries announce targets to reach net zero emissions, what are they actually talking about?
The world shifted its approach to the climate crisis in 2019.
It was a summer of protests: from entire cities shut down by disruption, to Greta Thunberg leading millions of kids to strike from school. There was a crystallizing feeling of international solidarity and cultural consensus, that this was the moment that things had to change for good.
And in one specific way, it did. For the first time, the world began to hear a new phrase slowly creeping its way into the climate lexicon: “net zero.”
Now, in a rush of green momentum, countries around the world are announcing targets to reach net zero. It’s one of the most common benchmarks that could measure the leadership of a government on climate change — how it lays out its race to net zero emissions.
What Is Net Zero?
Net zero essentially means contributing nothing to global warming. Such a goal suggests that a country would not put any more man-made carbon into the atmosphere — for example through greenhouse gases created when fossil fuels are burned — than it removes from it.
This means that the total greenhouse gas emissions in the air would never increase. In practice, that means doing two things: we have to reduce emissions while also taking carbon out of the atmosphere.
It is not carbon neutrality. Although that term also refers to bringing overall emissions level to nothing, it can commonly be achieved by offsetting the equivalent amount of carbon emissions reductions elsewhere. For example, a rich country could pay for its carbon budget to be offset by a developing country.
Three Things to Know About Net Zero
- We cannot stop the climate crisis without the planet transitioning to net zero, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
- The longer we take to hit net zero emissions, the more carbon dioxide (CO2) we’ll need to take out of the atmosphere, known as “negative emissions.”
- Net zero targets aren’t enough. We need detailed road maps on how to get there — and radical funding commitments to make it happen.
Why Is Net Zero Important?
Right now the planet is on course to blast past the rising temperatures that would make the climate crisis an irreversible ecological catastrophe.
The Paris Agreement, adopted by 196 countries in December 2015, established an agreement that the world must limit global temperature rises to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, and preferably to no further than 1.5 degrees.
That means a dramatic reduction in the levels of carbon released into the atmosphere — through things like green transport, regulated agriculture, and clean energy.
How Do We Reach Net Zero?
Establishing a long term net zero target is one thing. Properly funding it is quite another.
Although the UK was the first country in the world to legislate to hit net zero emissions by 2050, it still needs ambitious financing and policy decisions to hit this goal.
For example, despite its talk of a “green industrial revolution'' and supposedly world-leading medium-term targets for 2030, the UK government has still let planning go ahead for a new coal mine. In addition, it still plans to open a third runway at Heathrow Airport; it’s looking at building new gas-powered electricity plants; meanwhile, it also still sends plastic waste to developing countries.
That’s why the United Nations has called on rich countries to provide clearer financing mechanisms. Without robust backing, the net zero target has no power.
What Would Net Zero Look LIke?
Over 100 countries have now got some kind of net zero commitment.
The 2050 goal has been adopted by states including the US, France, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan. China has aimed for 2060, while some progressive countries, including Sweden and Scotland, have an earlier target of 2045 set in its crosshairs.
It won’t be easy. Vehicles fuelled by petrol or diesel will need to be replaced by electric cars. Sustainable public transport will be pivotal. Homes will need to be adapted to reduce waste, renewable energy must dominate, and agriculture will need to be transformed completely. To put it simply: to achieve net zero, every aspect of society must be examined and reimagined.
But it’s not just possible — it’s essential. If it doesn’t happen, global temperatures will keep rising until the point of no return. So although net zero targets are often set decades into the future, they must translate into immediate action if they’re to have any real meaning.