net zero

Understanding Net Zero

Net zero refers to striking a balance between the amount of anthropogenic gases that go into the atmosphere and the amount that is removed from the atmosphere. The race for net zero has commenced to stabilize Earth’s climate as soon as possible.

According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the temperature on Earth has risen by 1.1°C since pre-industrial times. 2021 was the sixth warmest year over the past decade. The conjoined efforts of scientists, environmentalists, and climate activists has paved the path for attaining net zero over the next two to three decades.

Understanding climate change and its consequences

The term climate change in the simplest way can be explained as drastic changes in the weather patterns at the global and regional levels.

Industrial and vehicular emissions have together contributed to the excessive release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (methane, water vapor) into our atmosphere. Too much accumulation of greenhouse gases has led to the entrapment of infrared radiation in the atmosphere. This is known as greenhouse effect and its consequence is global warming.

The global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels alone reached its zenith in 2019 as per a report from the Global Carbon Project. Besides a rise in the global temperature by 1.1°C, the CO2 concentration has also crossed the 400 ppm (parts per million) threshold in the atmosphere. This is leading to the loss of polar ice caps and melting of glaciers which is further leading to a rise in sea level. The global mean sea level rise is approximately 3.3 mm per year, estimated from 1993 to the present day.

Erratic weather patterns, extreme climate events, devastating flash floods, heatwaves, raging forest fires, and terrible hurricanes are a net result of global warming.

International events that paved the way for net zero

A lot of awareness and movements against climate change coupled with actions from international organizations have finally paved the way for carbon neutrality.

  • Myles Allen, Dave Frame, and several other scientists first highlighted the correlation between the cumulative emissions of CO2 and global warming in a research paper published in 2009.
  • The report that played a pivotal role in convincing the world that achieving net zero is our only hope in the battle against climate change is the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. It stated that to reduce the impact of global warming, the CO2 pile up in the atmosphere must be limited.
  • Article 4.1 of the Paris Agreement mandated the urgency to strike a balance between anthropogenic emissions and their removal to bring down the accumulation of excessive CO2 in our atmosphere. The agreement also insisted on preventing the rise of global temperatures beyond the 1.5°C mark.
  • The IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C concluded that attaining net zero emissions of CO2 by mid-century is indispensable. It also pointed out that the simultaneous cut down of non-CO2 emissions is essential for our survival.
  • Youth activists like GretaThunberg also initiated “Skolstrejk for Klimatet” (strike for the climate) and “Friday For Future” movements to attract the attention of world governments on stopping climate change.
  • The UNCOP26 held last year in Glasgow laid impetus upon reducing global temperatures to pre-industrial standards, reducing methane emissions by 2030, and much more.

What is net zero?

The concept of net zero was introduced in IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report which stated that the cumulation of the net anthropogenic CO2 must reach a state of zero in the atmosphere to cease the impact of global warming.

Thus, reaching a state of net zero emissions or carbon neutrality means achieving an atmospheric state where the amount of greenhouse gases emitted is equal to the amount of greenhouse removed from the atmosphere.

In order to be carbon neutral, the world needs to focus on two aspects;

  • To reduce the activities associated with intensive agriculture, excessive industrialization, power generation, and transportation, thereby bring a decline in GHG emissions.
  • Increased afforestation, reforestation, and using smart technology to remove the GHG’s from the atmosphere quickly.

Now, you must be wondering what is the difference between gross and net zero, and why are we aiming for net zero specifically?

Gross zero would refer to a state where there are no emissions as such in the prehistoric era. Curbing all GHG emissions is practically unattainable. Hence net zero is the next best option which comprises the aforementioned two steps.

Why is achieving net zero critical?

The only way out of global warming is through attainment of net zero. According to climate science experts, reduction of the atmospheric carbon dioxide load holds the key to stabilizing the Earth’s climate.

So, to be carbon neutral, certain industrial sectors can contribute towards reducing their CO2 output into the atmosphere while others who don’t have the option to reduce it can make an effort to remove it from the atmosphere.

The electricity sector can turn to renewable sources of energy and nuclear energy for its generation while the transportation sector can depend on electricity or hydrogen as its fuel source. Tesla, BMV, Volkswagen Group, and many more automobile companies are already manufacturing EVs.

The aviation sector and even the agricultural sector is not having many options to reduce their GHG emissions. So, these emissions must be removed to balance the atmospheric carbon load. Technologies like Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture are available solutions to get to the state of net zero emissions.

Final Note

Most nations of the world today have agreed to reach net zero and be compatible with the temperature goal outlined by the Paris Agreement. Other countries are following suit. The United Kingdom was the first G7 economy to create a net zero legislation in 2019 while countries like Bhutan and Suriname are already carbon negative.

137 out of 192 countries have already signed the UN Climate Convention. Finland has pledged to reach net zero by 2035, which is the earliest target of all countries. Next are Austria and Iceland who plan to reach net zero by 2040. Followed by this is Sweden with its target set for net zero by 2045. The UK, France, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland, Costa Rice, and Chile have committed to achieving net zero by 2050. Ultimately, China, Russia and India have set their targets to achieve net zero by 2060 and 2070 respectively.

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