Evidence shows that the Earth’s life support system is at risk if the global average surface temperature continues to rise. We need to stabilise the Earth’s temperature at a maximum of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change.1 To achieve the 1.5°C cap, global carbon emissions must stop increasing in 2020 and we must halve emissions every decade to approach net-zero by 2050, while at the same time removing some of the carbon already emitted into the atmosphere. To attain this we need the fastest structural, societal and economic transition ever seen – but one that our very survival depends on.2, 3
What is Net Zero?
Net-zero by 2050 is where we need to get – and this means that net carbon emissions will be zero. If there is still a gross positive quantity of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted globally in 2050, a minimum of the same quantity must be removed in 2050.
Although the IPCC Special Report on 1.5C1 differentiates between global Net Zero CO2 and Net Zero GHGs, when setting organisational targets, it’s simpler and clearer to stick with Net Zero greenhouse gases (GHGs), encompassing all seven main Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gases (below), and this further increases the chances of limiting global heating to 1.5C.
- Carbon dioxide (CO2)
- Methane (CH4)
- Nitrous oxide (N2O)
- Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
- Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
- Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6)
- Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)
In the past five years the global online environmental reporting platform, CDP, has seen a sizeable increase in companies setting targets and taking steps to neutralise their impacts on climate change. However, the definitions of terms such as carbon neutrality, climate neutrality and net-zero are ill-defined, and frequently used interchangeably or misunderstood.
It’s important therefore to clarify the definitions of these terms:
Carbon neutrality and net-zero carbon: Only carbon dioxide emissions are considered.
Net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are achieved when anthropogenic (human generated) CO2 emissions are matched globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period. Net zero CO2 emissions are also referred to as carbon neutrality; In this definition, only carbon dioxide emissions are considered.4
Net-zero emissions: All greenhouse gases are considered.
Net zero emissions are achieved when anthropogenic emissions of all the key greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are matched globally by anthropogenic removals of the same amount over a specified period. Where multiple greenhouse gases are involved, the quantification of net zero emissions depends on the climate metric chosen to compare emissions of different gases (such as global warming potential), as well as the chosen time horizon.4
Climate neutrality - Climate system is considered.
Concept of a state in which human activities result in no net effect on the climate system. Achieving such a state would require matching residual emissions with emissions removal as well as accounting for regional or local bio-geophysical effects of human activities that, for example, affect surface albedo or local climate.4
What is real net-zero?
Real net-zero emissions are where the world needs to get to around the middle of this century. It means greenhouse gas emissions through humankind’s activities will equal zero. The ‘net’ part here means that additional carbon dioxide removals can be taken into account when calculating the total anthropogenic emissions. These carbon removals must
1) have already taken place during the reference time period
2) be in addition to any pre-existing removals systems, be they natural or anthropogenic
3) be auditable and verified by climate scientists.5
What does best practice look like for organisational target-setting and declarations of net-zero?
In September 2019, the ‘Business Ambition for 1.5°C’ campaign was launched: a joint effort of the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi), the We Mean Business Coalition and UN Global Compact to help companies map their routes to net-zero:
“The next decade is critical. By taking this pledge you are formalising your increased ambition and signalling your commitment to a zero emissions future to your peers, investors, policy makers, customers, suppliers, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders.” 5
Businesses should take 3 steps:
- Sign up to the Business Ambition for 1.5°C
- Set science-based targets
- Halve their gross greenhouse gas emissions every 10 years.
When businesses set science-based targets, they are in effect setting themselves a real net-zero by 2050 target – taking a vital step for the survival of the planet and the species dependent on it.
Businesses can declare ‘net-zero’ when either
1) their total gross greenhouse gas emissions are nil
2) their residual emissions – those that they haven’t managed to avoid – have been removed through physical sequestration – through direct removals of carbon from the atmosphere that is demonstrably audited by climate scientists as at the very least matching the quantity of residual emissions; these removals must have taken place during the accounting year.
Where does carbon offsetting fit in?
On this 1.5C trajectory, businesses can and should invest in carbon reduction programmes on a voluntary basis, but should be wary of declaring themselves net-zero or setting net-zero targets that are reliant on carbon credits (or offsets) that are either:
- avoiding carbon rather than physically sequestering it,
- not removing the total residual amount of carbon within the same year, or
- may not be removing enough because the removal technology and calculations are not sufficiently transparent and auditable.
73% of carbon offset projects6 supplying Certified Emissions Reductions (CERs) do not remove the quantity of carbon that they claim to – and there are offset projects that, although environmentally and often societally positive, are not removing any atmospheric carbon at all. Therefore, using offset projects and carbon credits in order to make a declaration of net-zero is potentially misleading, and should be avoided.
However, companies can and should invest in sustainable development projects as part of their qualitative contribution to avoiding catastrophic climate change. Sustainable development facilitates the fundamental systems and societal transformations necessary to simultaneously eradicate poverty and inequality and avert global heating beyond 1.5C.
How to reach your science-based target, and approach net-zero
“Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems”.4
Electricity: Switch all of your purchased electricity to 100% renewable ROC- or REGO-backed supplies.
Web and cloud hosting: Ensure your web and cloud hosts are using 100% renewable electricity.
Fleet: Conduct a fleet and grey fleet audit and put in place the recommendations for decarbonisation (e.g. eco-driving, EVs, hydrogen-fuelled vehicles).
Energy and heat-saving: Conduct energy- and heat-saving audits and implement recommendations in buildings
Suppliers: Create a procurement policy which requires suppliers to measure and reduce their emissions, and engage with them to provide help and collaboration on their own pathways to decarbonisation
Travel: Create a company travel policy which minimises air and road travel and promotes video conferencing, rail travel, and discriminates between airlines on the basis of fuel and fleet efficiency; allow employees an extra day’s holiday to travel by rail instead of air.
Heating source: Replace fossil fuel space heating with ground or air source heat pumps, solar thermal, district heating, radiative heating or other alternatives
Industry processes: Conduct operational audits of agricultural, manufacturing and other processes and implement efficiency recommendations.
Agricultural carbon sinks: In agriculture, create or expand carbon sinks within the organisation’s boundaries, such as reforestation, using degraded land, restoring ecosystems, altering soil management techniques (e.g. reduced tilling) and adopting regenerative agriculture methods.
Work space: Consider efficiency measures such as hot desking and shared office spaces and flexible working from home.
Waste and diets: Reducing food waste and shifting to plant-rich diets are two critical interventions to prevent deforestation. Lower demand for food and farmland spares nature from additional clearing, indirectly protecting carbon sinks. Production of meat emits more than twice the emissions of vegan food5. Shift staff restaurants to plant-based menus only and remove subsistence allowances for animal produce.
Construction: In construction, where possible partially substitute cement clinker for alternative materials e.g. slag, clays and fly ash (potential to reduce emissions by 440 million tonnes globally).
Refrigerant leaks: Avoid leaks from refrigerants and destroy refrigerants at end of life, both after the adoption of alternatives to HFC refrigerants in line with the Kigali Accord, potentially avoiding 57.8 gigatonnes of carbon.
Increase recycling: If the average worldwide recycling rate increases to 65-68 percent of total recyclable waste, household recycling could avoid 5.5-6.0 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
Develop best practice: Collaborate with your peers to develop best practice in your industry, and to accelerate research and development for industry-wide decarbonisation.
Monitor and report on your annual emissions. You can do this with Compare Your Footprint carbon calculation and benchmarking tool!
Emissions removal: Ensure all residual emissions have been physically removed through carbon dioxide removal measures such as direct air carbon capture and storage (e.g. Carbfix via Climeworks), afforestation and reforestation, land restoration and soil carbon sequestration, enhanced weathering and ocean alkalinisation.
Spread the word: Share your story and invite your stakeholders to join your journey on the Road to Zero!
Author: Emma Littlewood
Creator of Compare Your Footprint
- Global warming of 1.5°C, IPCC 2018, Masson-Delmotte, V., et al
- A roadmap for rapid decarbonisation. J. Rockström et al., Science 355.6331, 1269-1271 (2017).
- 1.5C Business Playbook, Johan Falk et al.,, Exponential Roadmap project, Stockholm Resilience Centre
- Towards a Science Based Approach to Climate Neutrality in the Corporate Sector, SBTi and CDP 2019, Alberto Carrillo Pineda, Pedro Faria
- Business Ambition for 1.5°C, SBTi, United Nations Global Compact and We Mean Business Coalition
- How additional is the Clean Development Mechanism? Öko-Institut 2016, Dr. Martin Cames et al.
- Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU)