With the COP26 climate change negotiations underway, you’ll no doubt hear a lot of chatter about countries going “carbon neutral” or achieving “net zero emissions” by a certain year. Here’s a quick explanation of what those terms mean without the heavy jargon – and why you should possibly take these terms with a pinch of salt.
The concept of net zero has become a go-to climate target. To have a chance of keeping global warming within 1.5 °C (2.7°F) of pre-industrial levels – the primary target in the Paris Climate Agreement – global greenhouse gas emission must be reduced ASAP and reach net zero by the middle of the 21st century. In line with this advice, a number of big-emitting nations have made pledges to deliver net zero emissions by 2050: China has announced plans for carbon neutrality by 2060, while India is aiming for 2070.
Net Zero Doesn’t Mean Zero Emissions
If the world does achieve net zero emissions, it will mean that we are no longer adding to the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, net zero does not mean absolute zero emissions, but instead balancing out remaining emissions with other actions.
In other words, a net zero pledge will see a country attempt to balance their emissions by “offsetting”, or the removal out of greenhouses gases from the atmosphere – they pump out X amount of emissions, so X amount of emissions is removed from the atmosphere or X amount does not enter the atmosphere in the first place.
This can be achieved by cutting emissions of greenhouse gas, for example by switching to renewable energy sources. On top of this, efforts can be made to reduce or avoid the release of emissions elsewhere, through actions like mass tree plantings or land management changes.
To make matters more complicated, there's no strict definition of what gases should be included when talking about net zero. For instance, China’s pledge only includes carbon dioxide – the most important, most abundant greenhouse gas – while the European Union’s pledge targets all greenhouses gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Generally, however, net zero refers to carbon emissions, unless stated otherwise.
Net zero by 2050?
The current scientific consensus shows that the world needs to halve emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero before 2050. As it currently stands, not enough is being done to meet these targets. In the last week of October 2021, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)'s annual Emissions Gap Report 2021 was released, showing that the world's current pledges made for 2030 would still result in a 2.7°C (4.8°F) rise in global temperatures by the end of the century.
Looking forward to net zero by 2050, there's also a lack of tangible action. Some NGOs and scientists have argued that net zero pledges simply allow big emitters to delay cutting their own emissions and avoid divesting from fossil fuels. In the words of Oxfam, “companies and governments are hiding behind the smokescreen of NetZero to continue dirty business-as-usual activities.”
This is an important point, as carbon emissions don’t disappear at the end of each year – they linger and accumulate for centuries. Once in the atmosphere, carbon emissions will hang around in the atmosphere for between 300 to 1,000 years. There is no time, therefore, to be wasted away.
“Achieving net zero by 2050 is no longer enough to ensure a safe future for humanity; we must revise global targets beyond net zero, and commit to net negative strategies urgently,” Sir David King, Chair of Climate Crisis Advisory Group, commented in August 2021.
“It’s clearer than ever that there is no carbon budget remaining, and there really is no room left for manoeuvre; this is our ‘now or never’ moment. The world will be watching in November, as governments and policymakers come together at COP26, and they must put the future of humanity first.”
No guarantee we'll stick to net zero pledges
net zero pledges have garnered increasing doubt in recent years. Saudi Arabia and Australia – two giant exporters of fossil fuels – have recently attracted skepticism for their net zero initiatives. After all, it's currently doubtful whether most countries will achieve this aim, let alone those who are overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels.
While environmental group Greenpeace has said they support the aim to achieve net zero by 2050, they argue that pledges and offsetting cannot replace needed reductions and prompt fossil fuel phase-outs. Furthermore, they believe targets are not subject to sufficient regulation or scrutiny.
“Without global vigilance around net zero pledges and offsets, they are likely to be used as greenwashing and distraction by companies that aren’t prepared to lose profits to take the action necessary to help solve the climate crisis,” Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, wrote in an article for the World Economic Forum in September 2021.
Although a small handful of countries – including Canada, South Korea, Japan, the UK, and a small number of other European countries – have signed their net zero by 2050 pledge into law, the vast majority of the world hasn’t. Instead, it currently stands as a target under discussion.
Suriname and Bhutan, for the record, have already achieved carbon-negative status. Regardless, even if the pledge has been backed up by some kind of law, countries are often suspiciously quiet about how they will achieve their net zero aims.
“Without a scientific basis, and a true pathway to net zero...some of the effects of these trades, or these commitments, might be simply unrealizable,” Rachel Kyte, a climate adviser for the UN secretary-general and the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, told CNBC in September 2021.