What does ‘net zero’ really mean?

It’s the phrase of the moment – but what does net zero emissions’ really mean? Is it helping us take meaningful action on climate change – and what steps are we taking here in Lewes to get there? Juliet Oxborrow takes a look. 

Barely a day goes by these days without a government, major company or industry alliance announcing plans to reach ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by a certain date. More than 100 countries have pledged to get to net zero in the next three decades. The UK, the EU and, just recently, a Biden-led US administration have all pledged to achieved net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (with the UK government in its latest carbon budget promising to cut 78% of emissions by 2035 – one of the most ambitious targets in the world). Scotland and Sweden are aiming for 2045. China – the world’s largest coal user – is aiming for 2060.  

There has also been a proliferation of initiatives to get non-governmental organisations to sign up to a Net Zero pledge. The United Nations’ Race to Zero initiative claims to have signed up 509 cities, 23 regions, 2,162 businesses, 127 of the world’s biggest investors, and 571 higher education institutions. Signatories include a third of the UK’s largest FTSE 100 companies.  

In the run-up to the COP26 global climate summit in Scotland this November, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) chaired by former Bank of England governor Mark Carney has seen 160 banks and financial institutions around the world pledge to cut the carbon content of their $70 trillion of assets by 2030, with an overall goal of net zero emissions by 2050.  

What the jargon means 

Carbon accounting Physical carbon accounting quantifies the actual amounts of greenhouse gas emissions an entity is producing; financial carbon accounting looks to give carbon a financial market value. 

Carbon budget The cumulative amount of CO2 emissions permitted over a period of time to keep within a certain temperature threshold. 

Carbon credit A tradable certificate giving the holder the right to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide (or the equivalent of another greenhouse gas). 

Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) – carbon dioxide plus other greenhouse gases including methane and nitrous oxide. These gases are converted to carbon dioxide equivalents in proportion to the warming effect they have on the climate.

Carbon emissions – Means emissions of carbon dioxide.

Carbon negative – An organisation, country or activity is removing, or sequestering, more CO2 from the atmosphere than it is responsible for generating (see also ‘carbon positive’). 

Carbon neutral – Means the same as ‘carbon net zero’. 

Carbon net zeroEvery tonne of CO2 emitted is compensated with an equivalent amount of CO2 removed – so in ‘net’ terms, no emissions are produced. 

Carbon offset A reduction in emissions of CO2 or other greenhouse gases to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. Offsets are measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e).  

Carbon positive – A toe-curling marketing term for products that claim to eradicate more carbon emissions than their production generates. Currently being used for products ranging from a burger to a beanie hat 


So what does net zero mean?

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines net zero as cutting emissions to as close to zero as possible over a specified period then compensating for any remaining emissions with projects that can remove carbon and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (often called ‘carbon offsetting’). Such projects might include reforesting, wildlife restoration projects or investing in man-made carbon capture systems also known as ‘negative emissions technologies’. Or they might include supporting third-party renewable energy projects, usually in developing countries. that displace the need for carbon-producing power. 

So, say you’re a company that’s generating 60,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalents directly and indirectly a year. If you calculate that you can directly cut 40,000 tonnes of emissions a year by adapting your operations, products or consumption, you’d need to invest in projects that can take a further 20,000 tonnes of carbon and other greenhouse gases out of the air each and every year in order to claim to be net zero or carbon neutral.  

And if you can get to the point where you’re sucking more carbon out of the air than you’re generating, you get to call yourself ‘carbon negative’ (also confusingly called ‘carbon positive’ by some marketing folk).  Just two countries in the world are assessed to be carbon negative – Bhutan and Suriname. 


What are the concerns?

The principles sound simple enough. But the detail of going net zeros is full of pitfalls and caveats. Here are just a handful:

How do governments and organisations know how much carbon they need to cut?
Probably the biggest question is:  Who is calculating how much carbon companies, banks and governments are responsible for and therefore need to take action to eliminate? Emissions fall into three categories. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from sources owned or controlled by a company or other organisation. Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from the generation of the purchased power, heating etc it consumes. Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in the organisation’s value chain.  

The Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR) scheme, which came into force in 2019, has made it mandatory for larger UK businesses to report their greenhouse gas emissions, covering Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. But who is verifying the emissions figures and targets a company or government states?  

Companies and organisations are turning to independent services such as the Carbon Trust and the Climate Disclosure Project to verify their environmental claims. Additionally, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is rapidly gaining ground as the gold standard for robust scientific-based recommendations on how much and how quickly companies need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst effects of climate change. But just as there are international accounting standards for finance, so an internationally agreed framework for climate accounting is now urgently needed.   

Too many organisations may rely on carbon offsetting rather than carbon reduction
You only need to look down a list of companies that are pledging to go net zero to see that cutting their own directly-produced emissions is a forbidding task. Airlines, oil and gas producers – carbon emissions are hard-baked into these sectors’ core business. The question then is how they can possibly achieve enough carbon extraction to offset the emissions they are directly responsible for. Heathrow pays for peat-bog restoration as an offset to contribute to “carbon neutrality” in airport operations. Italian oil major ENI has pledged expansive afforestation to offset its operational emissions. 

A major risk is that the market (and therefore financial support) is going to focus primarily on helping major companies like these offset their carbon whereas the emphasis needs to be on dramatically cutting down carbon emissions in the first place. Clarity between what quantity of emissions companies are seeking to cut and what they are seeking to offset is essential. 

And some carbon offsets are better than others
Unsurprisingly, a massive market has already sprung up in carbon offset schemes where companies can invest in projects to balance out their own carbon footprint (you can also invest in some such schemes as an individual – e.g. to compensate for that flight to a best friend’s wedding in Las Vegas). But as demand for offsetting grows at a ferocious pace, so the quality of offset schemes – in terms of quantity of tonnes of carbon removed from the air or how long the carbon is likely to be effectively sequestered – can vary massively.  

The upshot is that high-quality offset schemes tend to be more expensive than lower-quality ones. So which will a company with an eye on its profit and loss account choose to meet its net zero promises? It is anticipated that as demand for carbon offsets rises, so will the price of a tonne of carbon, which may have consequences for companies seeking low-cost offsets. Plus there is a risk that a proliferation of nature-based offsetting projects (including in developing countries where costs are lower) will create greater competition for land and displace other essential land use. Also, many nature-based offsets take a long time to come to fruition – for example, trees only reach their full carbon capture potential at around 10 years old.

Lots of companies are relying on speculative technologies for offsetting carbon
Many companies may be primarily look to nature-based solutions to offset their emissions. But many are also factoring in man-made negative emissions technologies (NETs) into their future ‘carbon accounting’. The problem here is that most NETs are still only speculative – or are many years from operating at the scale and speed required to remove carbon at a level that could have a material impact on global warming.  

Net-zero plans that rely on promises of future carbon removal – instead of reducing emissions now – are, therefore, a massive gamble. If the new technologies being relied upon to remove huge quantities of carbon in the 2030s, 2040s and 2050s fail to work as expected (or even exacerbate emissions because, again, they’ve driven change in land use) it may be impossible to compensate for the cumulative emissions that have been generated in the meantime. 

Most net zero targets are too late
A final and obvious criticism is that the promises of getting to net zero carbon by 2050 – or even 2040 – are woefully late and complacent. It’s estimated that, at current global emissions levels, we have just over 15 years left before we exhaust the total amount of carbon we can pump into the air before global warming is highly likely to exceed 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels – the limit agreed by 200 countries under the 2015 Paris Agreement to avoid total climate disaster. 


So what’s the solution?

Companies and governments pledging to take action on carbon emissions is, of course, essential and to be welcomed. But it has to be the right, clear-headed action. Here’s a list of recommendations put forward by 41 scientists: 

  • Shift the focus from mid-century net-zero targets to immediate, real emissions reductions in our own high-income countries. Reductions of at least 10% per year are needed. This massive transformation of our societies is our only way to fulfil the Paris Agreement without relying on risky and unproven, large-scale deployment of negative emission technologies. 
  • Those in high-income countries, in addition to maximizing emissions reductions at home, must hugely increase climate finance contributions to low-income countries. The countries that are least responsible yet most vulnerable to the climate crisis must be supported in their efforts to adapt and transform to zero carbon societies, as part of the climate debt they are owed. 
  • Reject offsetting between high- and low-income countries and replace it with climate financing based on scientific evidence, a limited carbon budget and global climate justice. 
  • Define separate targets for negative emissions and emissions reductions. It is essential that socially and environmentally appropriate negative emissions are undertaken as climate investments or climate financing, not as carbon offsets. 
  • Stop marketing products as being “climate neutral” or “climate positive”. 
  • Stop extracting and using fossil fuels, the primary cause of the climate crisis. As well as real-zero targets, an international treaty is needed for the termination of fossil fuel production. 


The view from Lewes District Council

Lewes District Council has committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions in its own operations and assets (eg LDC-owned housing) by 2030. It’s also committed to helping the district generally reduce emissions by this deadline too. You can see LDC’s full net zero strategy here 

LDC Councillor Matt Bird, cabinet member for sustainability at LDC, says: The whole issue of getting to ‘Net Zero’ is fraught with potential difficulties and there are lots of ‘players’ positioning themselves to lead on emissions offsetting initiatives at the moment. 

While it’s a conversation that we definitely need to have, I think we need to be clear on the priorities of greenhouse gas reduction [at LDC] before directing efforts into, say, third-party schemes to offset business emissions even if this is done through local projects. 

It’s a big topic at the Wildlife Trusts. Although a fewKent in particularare striding ahead with offsetting offers, others are urging caution citing factors such as lack of confidence in existing habitat carbon data. There’s also competition with other land-use demands and issue what the net gain for biodiversity would be. 

In the meantime, there are three things I’d like to see happen in Lewes to help get us to ‘net zero’ 

  • All businesses and organisations have reliable carbon footprints and action plans. 
  • A Local Communities Green Fund is set up to encourage zero carbon initiatives. 
  • A pilot for Individual Carbon Budgets is set up.



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