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What exactly is ‘net-zero carbon’?

  • by JW

Net’ is the last refuge of the climate scoundrel.

Net zero’ describes when the emissions that are left are absorbed (or netted out) by planting a lot of trees and by the use of technologies such as carbon capture.


Everybody wants to go ‘carbon neutral’ – also known as becoming ‘net zero’ when it comes to producing carbon:

Net-zero agriculture by 2050?

District Council commits to carbon neutral by 2040

Devon aims to be carbon neutral by 2030

County Council sets up the Net Zero Task Force to develop its carbon plan


But what exactly does this mean?

It seems that planting lots of trees is a good thing to ‘balance’ the amount of carbon out there:

Plant lots of trees to tackle climate change

However, putting up carbon-intensive buildings and then putting up a few solar panels is not really providing some sort of ‘balance’:

What is a ‘net-zero carbon’ building?

The New Economics Foundation looks deeper:


Net out of jail free

There’s a new game in town for climate delayers. It’s called ‘net zero’.

… there’s a new game in town for those who still think there’s time left for business as usual. It’s called ​‘net zero by 2050’ and its prevalence shows how many of those with power and influence still don’t really ​‘get’ climate change.

There are three problems with ​‘net zero by 2050’, which is the UK government’s official climate change target. The first is that it’s highly unlikely to be anything close to adequate in terms of the pace and scale of action required for the UK to meaningfully respond to the climate emergency. The second problem is that 2050 does not carry enough of a sense of jeopardy to influence decisions being made now. The UK is already wandering off track, with no clear climate plan for the economy.

Every business leader and politician loves a long-term target: never do today what you can put off until tomorrow! But the third problem with net zero by 2050 is the ​‘net’ bit. It is already clear that ​‘net’ is the last refuge of the climate scoundrel. In the global game of climate monopoly, it is fast becoming the ​‘net out of jail free’ card.

‘Net zero’ describes a state in which the residual emissions that are left once the economy has decarbonised to the maximum extent possible are absorbed (or netted out) by planting a lot of trees and by the use of technologies such as carbon capture. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK’s climate watchdog, suggests the amount of carbon to be ​‘netted out’ should be around 130 million tonnes of CO2 and restricted to sectors such as aviation and steel that are very hard to decarbonise. The CCC also advises that all of the ​‘netting out’ should be achieved domestically and not by using international offsets (like planting trees in other countries, likely in the Global South). But the problem is that every sector wants to get their hands on some of these net emissions.


Here’s another take:

What is net zero? – Grantham Research Institute on climate change …