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What is exactly is ​‘net-zero carbon’? … revisited

  • by JW

“Carbon neutrality targets are often not as ambitious as they sound, relying on problematic carbon offsets and unproven technologies.”


Quite an important question, which these pages addressed at the beginning of the year:

What exactly is ‘net-zero carbon’? – Vision Group for Sidmouth

This has been translated over time into seemingly practical applications:

And, indeed, there is a certain impatience about it:

Get Net-Zero Done – Vision Group for Sidmouth

However, many commentators point out that it is actually pretty meaningless – and this is what many are pointing to about the latest plans for Exeter:

The ‘Net Zero’ Exeter plan has “profound flaws” – Vision Group for Sidmouth

It is indeed very confusing:

When it comes to sustainability terms and climate change, there are numerous ‘buzzwords’ and phrases used to describe organisations or buildings that are very energy efficient and use renewable energy sources to reduce or eliminate emissions. The most popular sustainability term is of course ‘Net Zero Emissions’ which has been widely popularised since the Paris Agreement in 2015 where many governments have formalised their commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Sustainability Terms: Net Zero v Carbon Neutral v Carbon Positive

There’s no shortage of companies publishing net zero targets but, as yet, there’s no commonly agreed definition of net zero.

Net zero: an ambition in need of a definition | Carbon Trust

But what exactly does “net zero” mean? Does it mean no more smokestacks? And is it any more than creative accounting?

EXPLAINER: The real math behind “net zero” carbon emissions

Carbon neutrality targets are often not as ambitious as they sound, relying on problematic carbon offsets and unproven technologies

10 myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting, busted

Our newly published research – based on findings from expert interviews and stakeholder deliberations – suggests that combining emissions reductions and negative emissions into a single target of reaching “net-zero” may create problems. These could include delayed emissions cuts, but also insufficient focus on developing negative emissions technologies.

Guest post: The problem with net-zero emissions targets | Carbon Brief

Here is a reprint of the piece from the NEF archives from earlier in the year which doesn’t pull its punches when questioning the notion of ‘zero carbon’:


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

… The much-discussed ​Greta Thunberg effect’ has opened up the debate about what has come to be known as the climate emergency. 

You would have thought the time for obfuscation is over. But 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.

There are some notable exceptions to free riding on net zero, but also some egregious examples. Step forward BP…

BP should not be allowed to get away with its all mouth and no trousers approach, but it has a role model: the UK government. Because for all of Prime Minister Johnson’s bravado at the recent launch of the UK’s presidency of the UN climate talks later this year, his government has no plan for how to achieve net zero and is carrying on as usual.

If companies and governments want to show leadership, as both BP and the UK claim, then they need to do three things. The first is stop playing the ​net out of jail free’ card and be realistic about the need to reduce emissions to as close to zero as possible. The more the promise of ​net’ beckons, the less incentive there is for the scale of action to reduce emissions now.

The second is to have a plan for the whole economy, including supporting workers in companies like BP to reskill, which starts now and moves fast.

The third is to budget for carbon in the same way government and companies budget financially. The Climate Change Act already requires carbon budgets to be set in five year cycles and for annual reports to Parliament by the CCC, to which the government has to respond. It’s now time to set annual reduction targets of at least 10% and prepare an annual budget — including measures to achieve next year’s reductions — that has equal status with the government’s finances andis firmly linked to the government’s finances. Companies should do exactly the same.

… Bring us the plan and stop trying to net out of jail free.

Net out of jail free | New Economics Foundation