Defining Net Zero Emissions in Sustainability and Carbon Accounting

What are Net Zero Emissions?

Today, many governments, companies, NGOs, and climate stakeholders are discussing laws and plans to achieve 'net zero emissions.' Often, net zero is used in conjunction with a target achievement date: net zero by 2030, for example. So what does 'net zero emissions' actually mean?

In the last 100 years, the amount of atmospheric pollution produced by the global economcy has grown dramatically. These greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are most commonly referred to as carbon, specifically carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon isn't the only type of GHG emission, but established scientific and carbon accounting methods often convert other emissions like methane and nitrous oxide into carbon equivalents (CO2e).

GHG emissions growth is the leading cause of climate change and global warming.

Global Atmospheric Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide Since the Industrial Revolution (1760-2022)

Last Updated: 2022

Source: EPA Climate Change Indicators, last certified in 2022.

Because carbon and other GHG emissions linger in the atmosphere for many years, scientific research shows that the only way to stabilize global temperatures and halt climate change is to achieve net zero global emissions, an objective outlined by the 2015 United Nations Paris Agreement.

The Definition of Net Zero Emissions

Net zero emissions mean that the entire amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions released into the atmosphere is balanced by an equal amount of emissions being reduced, captured, or removed
Net Zero Emissions Definition

Since the global economy (and most companies) are not net zero today (they are net polluters), we need to achieve net zero through various decarbonization strategies and steps.

Decarbonization means reduction of carbon. Specifically, we need to reduce GHG emissions released into the Earth's atmosphere from business activities like manufacturing, industrial agriculture, burning fossil fuels, as well as our use of carbon-based fuels in transportation and travel.

Is it Possible to Achieve Net Zero Emissions?

In short, yes, net zero emissions are possible. In fact, net zero's already being demonstrated by certain organizations. Google, for example, now operates as a net zero company.

Common steps companies and countries must take to achieve net zero emissions include:

  1. Reducing energy consumption and usage through energy efficiency and smart grid improvements
  2. Using clean energy (solar, wind, water, nuclear) instead of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal)
  3. Replacing fossil fuel transportation with electric vehicles
  4. Reducing industrial agriculture and introducing more sustainable farming and land practices
  5. Replacing inputs and raw materials with more sustainable alternatives
  6. Value chain efficiency optimization and supply chain sustainability improvements
  7. Improved circularity, re-use, recycling, and end-of-life treatment for finished and discarded goods and products
  8. Carbon capture, tree planting, kelp farming, and other methods to remove and sequester atmospheric CO2

Today, most companies and governments pursuing net zero emissions use most if not all of these tactics to decarbonize.

GHG Emissions Decarbonization Example - United Kingdom

One encouraging example of country-wide decarbonization is the United Kingdom. The British economy's CO2 emissions peaked in 1973 and declined significantly between 2003 and 2020, faster than any other major country.

How did the UK achieve such impressive decarbonization results? Primarily by using less energy, and more clean energy.

UK Country Decrabonization Example

Transitioning from coal-fueled electricity production to (cleaner) natural gas and renewable energy accounted for 36% of the UK's decarbonization success. Reducing industrial and household energy usage contributed another 31%. Together, these two transition steps contributed more than two thirds of British decarbonization over one and a half decades. During this same period - outside the 2008-2009 financial crisis and 2020+ COVID-19 pandemic - the UK achieved steady 2-3% annual GDP growth.

These same decarbonization steps - greater energy efficiency, lower energy consumption, and increased use of renewable energy - can be achieved by companies as well, not just governments, with similar outcomes.

Worldwide, 32 countries have begun decoupling their emissions growth from GDP growth, including the US and Germany. But as scientists and researchers note, the decoupling isn't happening fast enough. The global economy isn't decarbonizing as a whole. Atmospheric carbon is at record highs, and we're not moving closer towards net zero.

To achieve the latest IPCC and Paris Agreement targets, we need to decarbonize the global economy much faster and reach net zero by 2050.

IPCC Decarbonization and Net Zero Scenarios

Getting to net zero global emissions over the next 20-30 years will be one of humanity's greatest challenges in history, but also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure a livable future for billions of people, plants, and animals. The faster we decarbonize, the more we can limit the most severe consequences of climate change and biodiversity loss, creating a sustainable, prosperous future for everyone.

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