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What is Net Zero Emissions?

In 2015, the Paris Agreement outlined an ambitious global plan to combat climate change. The plan would require keeping the rise in global average temperatures "well below 2 degrees Celsius" above pre-industrial levels and trying to limit global warming to 1.5° C. To achieve this goal, global emissions need to reach net zero by 2050.

Since the Paris Agreement was signed, a growing number of countries including Norway, Sweden, and the UK have committed to achieving net zero emissions, while Suriname and Bhutan are already below net zero. At least 34 major companies have also pledged to take action to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

But what does net zero emissions actually mean, and how is it achieved? It’s a (relatively) simple concept, but defining it can be tricky. We’ll walk you through some of the basics of net zero emissions, so that you’ll be better equipped to communicate these concepts to stakeholders in your company.

What is net zero emissions?

Net zero emissions refers to the practice of reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) as much as possible, then offsetting the rest by removing an equal amount of GHGs from the atmosphere.

As the name implies, the ultimate goal of net zero is to get to zero GHG emissions. But rather than attempting to reduce emissions from all sources to zero, which is often cost-prohibitive or unattainable, net zero allows for some positive emissions as long as they are canceled out by negative emissions. You can think of it as “breaking even”.

Scientists agree that net zero emissions is the best answer to solving the climate crisis and stabilizing global temperatures.

How is net zero emissions achieved?

Clearly, achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions presents a monumental challenge — but there is hope.

“The good news is that some of the kinds of actions that would be needed to limit global warming to 1.5ºC are already underway around the world, but they would need to accelerate,” said Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I, which produced the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.

In order to achieve net zero by 2050, individual buildings, cities, and countries will need to aggressively target greenhouse gas emissions. As we mentioned above, there are two basic methods to do this.

Imagine you were trying to lose weight. You could either reduce your calorie intake or increase your physical activity to cancel out the calories you've consumed.

Likewise, in order to reach zero emissions, you could either reduce your emissions or increase your efforts to remove emissions from the atmosphere. Net zero focuses on reducing emissions first, then offsetting any remaining emissions as a last resort. 

Many companies already have measures in place to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced. These include things like switching to renewable energy, using electric vehicles, or installing smart thermostats and energy-efficient lighting.

For emissions that can’t be eliminated, the approach is to balance them out by removing an equal (or greater) amount of emissions from the atmosphere. This could mean investing in reforestation or conservation projects, buying carbon credits, or utilizing carbon capture and storage technologies.

For example, global energy giant Shell will offset emissions generated when customers use its products by investing $300M in reforestation and electric vehicle charging projects.

Final thoughts

The first step in achieving net zero, of course, will be to measure and disclose current GHG emissions. It’s the old saying, “To know where you’re going, look where you’ve been.” 

To learn more, check out this article on the 5 benefits of carbon management.

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