What is Net Zero Emissions? -

23 June 2022

What is Net Zero Emissions?

In 2015, the Paris Agreement outlined an ambitious global plan to combat climate change. The plan would require keeping the rise in global average temperatures “well below 2 degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels and trying to limit global warming to 1.5° C. To achieve this goal, global emissions need to reach net zero by 2050. Since the Paris Agreement was signed, more than 70 countries — including the U.S., China, and the European Union — have set net zero targets that cover about 76% of global emissions. Over 1,200 companies have pledged to take action to reach net zero emissions by 2050. More than 300 have signed a pact to reach the Paris Agreement goal of net zero carbon 10 years early.

But what does net zero emissions actually mean, and how is it achieved? It’s a (relatively) simple concept, but defining it can be tricky. We’ll walk you through some of the basics of net zero emissions, so that you’ll be better equipped to communicate these concepts to stakeholders in your company.

What is net zero emissions?

Net zero emissions refers to the practice of reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) as close to zero as possible, then offsetting the rest by removing an equal amount of GHGs from the atmosphere.

As the name implies, the ultimate goal of net zero is to get to zero total GHG emissions. Rather than attempting to reduce emissions from all sources to zero, which is often cost-prohibitive or unattainable, net zero does allow for some positive emissions as long as they are canceled out by negative emissions. You can think of it as “breaking even”.

Scientists agree that net zero global emissions is the best answer to solving the climate crisis and stabilizing global temperatures.

How is net zero emissions achieved?

Clearly, achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions presents a monumental challenge — but there is hope.

“The good news is that some of the kinds of actions that would be needed to limit global warming to 1.5ºC are already underway around the world, but they would need to accelerate,” said Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I, which produced the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.

In order to achieve net zero by 2050, individual buildings, cities, and countries will need to aggressively target greenhouse gas emissions. The steps are simple but not easy:

1. Measure and report your current emissions

What’s the first thing you would do if you were trying to lose weight? Most likely, you’d step on the scale so you could understand how much you currently weigh and track your progress.

Likewise, the first step in achieving net zero will be to measure and report your current GHG emissions. It’s the old saying, “To know where you’re going, look where you’ve been.”

If you haven’t already done so, you’ll need to put systems in place to accurately measure your emissions. Many companies already have these measures in place to some degree. They will need more granular data to identify which processes and pieces of equipment most contribute to GHG emissions. This is why many companies are turning to asset-level monitoring. Asset-level monitoring enables you to measure emissions at the source, or “asset level”. This lets you know where to focus your emissions reduction efforts.

2. Avoid or reduce GHG emissions as much as possible

Going back to our weight loss example, you have two basic choices to lose weight: You could either reduce your calorie intake, or increase your physical activity to cancel out the calories you’ve consumed.

Similarly, in order to reach zero emissions, you could either reduce your emissions or increase your efforts to remove emissions from the atmosphere. It focuses on reducing emissions first, then offsetting any remaining emissions as a last resort.

Many companies have already taken steps to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced, or avoid these emissions altogether. These include things like switching to renewable energy, using electric vehicles, or installing smart thermostats and energy-efficient lighting. In addition to reducing overall emissions, these actions often have the added benefit of cost-savings.

3. Offset any remaining emissions

For emissions that can’t be eliminated, the approach is to balance them out by removing an equal (or greater) amount of emissions from the atmosphere. This could mean investing in reforestation or conservation projects, buying carbon credits, or utilizing carbon capture and storage technologies.

For example, global energy giant Shell offsets emissions generated when customers use its products by investing $100M a year in nature-based carbon offsets, which include forestation projects. It also plans to boost its use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to 25 million tonnes a year by 2035.

“Many customers from individuals to companies today have no alternative to using carbon-based energy, but still want to be net zero. We can mitigate emissions as an integral part of the energy solutions we sell them,” Chief Executive Ben van Beurden said in a press release.

“The order of priority is this. First, avoid emissions, second, reduce emissions, and only then turn to mitigation.” And that, in a nutshell, is what net zero emissions is all about.