David Attenborough, People’s Advocate for the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference, Address to World Leaders.
Our FAQs are designed to help you understand everything you need to know about the topic of net zero, the jargon associated with climate change and net zero solutions, such as Science Based Targets and being carbon negative.
You can also request our in-depth net zero toolkit, ideal to share with stakeholders and colleagues to help inform net zero decisions and create buy-in and awareness of climate change.
The scientific evidence is clear: to prevent the most devastating effects of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced to zero by the second half of this century.
The main goal is to stop producing emissions, but this will be impossible in some hard-to-abate sectors, such as aviation and shipping. So emissions will need to be removed from the atmosphere (known as carbon removal) to compensate. The result is “net zero” – an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced, and emissions removed.
The Grantham Research Institute has a helpful analogy for this:
“Like a bath with the taps on, an approach to achieving this balance can either be to turn down the taps (the emissions) or to drain an equal amount down the plug (removals of emissions from the atmosphere, including storage for the emissions such as ‘carbon sinks’).”
Achieving net-zero emissions in the second half of this century is imperative to limit global warming to well below 2C, ideally 1.5C.
The earth’s temperature is already around 1C warmer than pre-industrial levels. The UN estimates that this change in climate is causing over 150,000 deaths a year – that estimate includes deaths as a result of extreme weather conditions, water-borne diseases and impacts on food production.
Unfortunately, it will be the poorest populations who suffer the worst effects of climate change. Developed countries have played the biggest part in causing climate change – and have the greatest moral responsibility to tackle the problem.
In simplistic terms, net zero will require action across 3 areas:
Not yet. The Committee on Climate Change’s most recent progress report to Parliament (June 2020) says that 2020 has not been “the year of policy progress that the Committee called for in 2019.” It acknowledges progress made so far but says “these steps do not yet measure up to meet the size of the Net Zero challenge and we are not making adequate progress in preparing for climate change.” However, we are expecting a number of important policy announcements this year that will take us closer towards the target, including a Transport Decarbonisation Plan, Heat and Buildings Strategy, and a detailed Net Zero Strategy that will set out our pathway for transitioning to a net zero economy.
“Net zero” is about achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere, and the amount removed, through offsetting measures like tree planting, or carbon capture and storage technologies. “Zero emissions” refers to processes that do not produce emissions in the first place – for example, a building running entirely on solar PV panels could refer to its energy use as “zero emissions”.
The UK government’s legally binding target is for the UK to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and it’s not an arbitrary date – it’s based on our commitment to the Paris Agreement, and advice from the Committee on Climate Change.
Under the Paris Agreement, governments agreed to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, and to make efforts to keep it below 1.5ºC.
To meet this 1.5ºC target, the latest scientific evidence shows that global emissions must reach net zero by the middle of this century. To avoid the worst climate impacts, it will also need to drop by half by 2030.
There are actually six major greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, but people sometimes express net zero commitments in terms of just carbon dioxide (CO2), or “carbon” for short.
This is because carbon dioxide makes up of the vast bulk of GHG emissions. It’s mainly produced by burning fossil fuels in, for example, coal power stations, to provide energy for homes and businesses. It’s also the easiest to abate, through energy efficiency, renewable generation, and carbon removal.
Other greenhouse gases are important too, but they are more difficult to phase out – such as the methane produced from agricultural activity and landfill sites. It’s unlikely that emissions from these sources will be brought to zero, so to reach net zero, an equivalent amount of CO2 will need to be taken out of the atmosphere.
The UK’s 2050 net zero emissions target is to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions overall, not just carbon.
Carbon negative means removing even more carbon than you actually emit each year, through natural carbon sinks (e.g. forests) or technologies such as carbon capture and storage. It goes one step further than “net zero”.
The latest scientific evidence suggests that we must limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and try to limit warming to 1.5°C if we are to avoid the catastrophic effects of runaway climate change.
A company’s emissions reduction target is considered “science-based” if it is aligned with this goal. Science-based targets give companies a framework through which they can clearly see how much and how quickly they need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, in line with this limit.
A net zero building, as defined by the World Green Building Council, is one that has a zero net energy consumption. This means that the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site or by other off-site renewable energy sources. They are also known as zero energy buildings, zero net energy building or net zero energy buildings.
Whilst achieving net zero will have many benefits there will be costs involved. Being able to estimate these costs is harder as it will depend on new and emerging technology and how the economy and people’s behaviour change.
However, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) put the figure at £70bn per year, or over £1 trillion by 2050.
Yes – it is possible, and essential. But the scale of the challenge is huge, requiring fundamental shifts in the way we consume energy. Harder to abate sectors such as heavy industry, shipping and aviation will need the greatest intervention and innovation. The UK government is working on policies to decarbonise all sectors, and a Net Zero Review is underway, led by the Treasury that will set out a roadmap to achieve the 2050 target.
Many corporates aren’t waiting for further instruction and have already set ambitious net zero strategies of their own that will end their contribution to climate change.
The UN’s race to zero campaign has support from over 1,000 businesses, and nearly a quarter of these have targets aligned to net zero.
Carbon insetting is a little-known term at the moment, but uptake is growing.
Like carbon offsetting, it involves investing in carbon reduction or sequestration projects to compensate for emissions released. But whereas offsetting projects can take place anywhere, insetting must take place within your company’s value chain. For example, rather than investing in a clean energy project in another country, you might choose to fund clean energy projects on site or on invest in suppliers’ clean energy projects.
Ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s is one example of a company using insetting. The company invested in a manure separator for some of its dairy suppliers, to reduce methane emissions. This has saved greenhouse emissions in its own supply chain, and given financial support to its farming suppliers.
Read more at – Carbon insetting: can it help your business get to net zero?
Yes – more and more companies are taking action on climate change, and targets that seemed too ambitious a short time ago are becoming mainstream. In December 2019, over 500 B Corps committed to achieving a net zero target by 2030>. Other examples of organisations aiming for a 2030 target include broadcaster Sky, and the Church of England.
Scope 3 emissions are often known as “value chain” emissions, because they come from sources upstream or downstream of your business, such as suppliers or customers. In the example of a supermarket, this might be the emissions produced from a supplier’s production of bread.
Scope 3 emissions make up a surprisingly high percentage of total emissions for many businesses: Some estimates place Scope 3 emissions somewhere between 80% and 97% of total emissions for a large business.
Given this, a net zero strategy with integrity should include tackling Scope 3 emissions. Mapping out a company’s Scope 3 emissions is a huge and complex area, but BiU can help. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.