The battle against climate change is full of confusing terminology that corporations and governments worldwide use to conceal their lack of action and accountability. Below, we will explore two terms sometimes used interchangeably but meaning two entirely different things: net zero and real zero. Understanding the distinction between net zero and real zero is crucial for addressing environmental challenges.
What are net zero and real zero?
Simply stated, net zero is cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions being re-absorbed from the atmosphere by oceans, forests, or other natural features. Consider it as a set of scales: emitting greenhouse gases tips the scales, and we want to restore balance, which means no more greenhouse gases can be added to the atmosphere in any given year than are removed. Its aim is to balance the amount of GHG that’s produced with the amount that’s removed from the atmosphere.
On the other hand, real zero means that total emissions created or released amount to zero, none, or zilch. In other words, real zero means completely eliminating carbon emissions from a certain source or operation. Transitioning to renewable energy sources such as fossil-free gas, wind, and solar power is imperative to achieving zero. Scientific and technological innovation, as well as community education and involvement, are also paramount to this goal.
Differences between net zero and real zero
Although net zero is a good start, some corporations tout this as if they have reached their emissions target when, in truth, they carry on releasing the same amount.
They offset this matter through tree planting and other reforestation projects. All the while, corporations keep pumping noxious gases into the atmosphere at the same rate and utilise carbon offsets to cancel out their emissions rather than reduce them.
Inversely, when businesses operate in a real zero capacity, they either avoid emitting at all (climate positive) or reduce their emissions to zero and end all practices contributing to global warming and resource depletion (climate neutral).
A company can also be carbon negative, meaning their carbon emissions fall below zero. They achieve this by not emitting at all and engaging in additional projects to reduce global emissions. Such projects can include investing in renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power; improving energy efficiency in operations and products; and working with suppliers to reduce emissions and implement sustainable practices in their operations.
To summarise, net zero simply cancels out emissions, while real zero produces none to begin with. Net zero refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions created and emissions removed from the atmosphere. This is different from real zero, which demands a near-complete transformation of how society produces, consumes, and lives, with everything changed to be more efficient, environmentally conscious, and less wasteful.
Understanding this difference can help businesses, nations, and policymakers make more informed and effective choices when reaching the global target of zero emissions.
This knowledge can also aid them in setting increasingly aggressive commitments towards real zero while identifying areas in their operation that need to eliminate harmful emissions.
Importance of achieving zero emissions
Since the 1800s, the global temperature has risen by 1.1°C, mainly due to the Industrial Revolution and the accelerated growth in human population, waste, and emissions that ensued. This increase in temperature may not seem like a big deal, but seeing the record-breaking forest fires, cataclysmic storms, unrelenting heatwaves, and species loss already taking place, we find that the time to act is now.
If we continue this trend, global warming will likely reach 1.5°C in the following decade, creating planetary conditions that can threaten life as we know it.
To prevent this catastrophe, world leaders signed the Paris Agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2015. The agreement sets long-term goals for all nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep the global temperature from rising beyond the already critical 1.5°C.
According to a UN climate review, as it stands, we are not on track to meeting the Paris Agreement goals. But there is a reason to be optimistic. Solar power consumption increased tenfold between 2010 and 2019, with the usage of electric vehicles growing by 100 times during that same time. Still more —much more— needs to be done.
Aside from the environmental importance of reaching zero emissions, when a business or any other entity meets this goal, it becomes essential for them to communicate such achievements with the public. This can generate interest within the community (or potentially far wider), inspiring others to start on their real zero journeys. It can also improve reputation and customer loyalty.
Challenges in achieving zero emissions
The biggest hurdle to achieving real zero is that it requires a near-complete transformation of society’s current modes of production and consumption. How we live our lives would need to change fundamentally into something more environmentally conscious, efficient, and much less wasteful.
Despite the rise in the use of cleaner energy sources like the ones mentioned in the section above, fossil fuels will likely remain central in poorer countries and within hard-to-abate industries. For these industries, such as steel, cement, and petrochemicals, carbon remains an integral part of their processes, accounting for around 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the EPA, the transportation sector, including modes of travel through land, air, and sea, accounts for nearly a third of all GHG emissions in the nation. We should not underestimate the impact renewable sources can have on this industry; an effect that will get us closer to a global real zero.
Similarly, industries such as agriculture and the energy sector will be changed forever once they are entirely transformed into sustainable enterprises. Agricultural innovations such as digital farming solutions, soil health analytics, green and low-carbon nitrates, and organic-based fertilisers are leading this evolution. All these advancements will, in turn, build healthier solids and support biodiversity, creating a more sustainable, resilient, and fair value chain.
Net zero is not enough. As companies and countries become more environmentally friendly, their efforts towards real zero need to go beyond the comforts of net zero. Loopholes such as carbon offsets need to be rendered unacceptable.
The Paris Agreement has set the stage for the necessary changes, but much more must be done by the common people to reach this goal. Businesses can join a Green Business Certification programme to formalise their plans for sustainability; communities can create, promote, and instil a greener culture within their population; and individuals can commit to reducing their carbon footprint at home, sharing their knowledge and achievements with friends and family.
Real zero may require an exorbitant amount of effort, but it’s an attainable objective. A more sustainable life that leads to global climate stability is possible.