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Net Zero: What does it mean, and can we really achieve it?

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in Climate
Net Zero: What does it mean, and can we really achieve it?
26 Oct
Net zero. It’s the phrase that polarises scientists and environmental campaigners like no other. For some, it’s the only game in town, the sole means by which humans will avoid catastrophic climate change and limit global warming to 1.5°C. For others, it’s a brazen vehicle for greenwashing and deferring meaningful change – Mark Rowe investigates 

Net zero has been embraced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which set out the case and trajectory for it in a 2018 report. It’s also embedded in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which calls for a balance between anthropogenic emissions and carbon reduction. Major environmental organisations have also thrown their weight behind the concept. In a 2019 report called Keeping It Cool, WWF concluded that with increased ambition, it was possible for the UK to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045.

The UK is legally committed to net zero by the Climate Change Act as amended in 2019, which upgraded the original target of an 80 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. The new, binding goal of a 100 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 covers every sector of the economy, including international aviation and shipping. Eye-catching targets include a ban on the installation of gas and oil boilers in new homes by 2025; and a commitment that new vehicles powered wholly by petrol and diesel won’t be sold in the UK from 2030 (although hybrids will still be permitted).

In some sectors of the economy, such as power generation, ground transport and homes, the technology to reduce emissions to zero already exists. However, in other industries – aviation, steel and cement, shipping and agriculture – reducing emissions to zero is very unlikely as things currently stand. In order to balance the emissions from these industries, an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases will have to be removed from the atmosphere.

This is where the ‘net’ in net zero comes in, according to Isabella O’Dowd, head of climate at WWF and author of the Keeping it Cool report. Net zero means that any remaining GHG emissions are balanced by removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere. The organisation envisages this taking place through nature-based carbon removal via soils, peat, wetlands and forest growth, which all store carbon, as well as carbon dioxide removal technologies such as carbon capture and storage. Other measures to achieve net zero include emissions-trading schemes, whereby energy-intensive industries are given permits to emit greenhouse gases and can trade them at the market rate.

Screenshot 2021 10 26 at 16.41.17

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act that reports on progress, reckons England can achieve net zero by 2050, and Scotland by 2045, but in Wales, it recommends a 95 per cent reduction by 2050. ‘Wales has less opportunity for CO2 storage and relatively high agricultural emissions that are hard to reduce. It could not credibly reach net- zero GHGs by 2050,’ says a CCC spokesperson.

The talk is good, but is action lagging? ‘It has been two years since the government announced the net-zero target and it’s fair to say the response is still very much under way,’ says Mike Thompson, director of analysis at the CCC. ‘Net zero is hard. The previous targets were 80 per cent reduction by 2035 and it’s the extra 20 per cent that’s hardest.’ O’Dowd identifies an urgent need for detailed plans for short-term action. ‘Businesses are telling us they want clarity and targets so they can adjust.’

A 2018 report from the Grantham Institute identified a number of achievements, such as the transformation of the power sector and the improvement of the debate around climate change. Yet it also noted that while ‘there are no outright failures... often the problems are not with the act itself, but with the way policymakers have acted under the framework it created’.

Shortcomings identified by the institute include insufficient protection against backsliding. ‘Without enforcement action, the gap between the emissions targets set in law and the policies put in place to deliver them may widen.’ Earlier this year, Meg Hillier, chair of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, concluded that the government had set itself a huge test in committing the UK to a net-zero economy by 2050, but there was ‘little sign that it understands how to get there’, and almost two years after pledging greater detail ‘still has no plan’.

LOW RES better comingWorkers at electric truck startup Arrival Automotive’s new microfactory in Banbury, UK, take a break. Image: Andrew Testa

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Th e CCC recently marked the UK’s own homework. While it gave praise in some areas, the overall message was ‘must do better’. In its report, Independent assessment of UK climate risk, the authors noted: ‘Alarmingly… the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation underway has widened. Adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk.’

Nevertheless, Thompson from the CCC believes that the all-encompassing nature of the net-zero goal has a galvanising effect on the most polluting industries. ‘As the name suggests, everything is included,’ he says. ‘When the target was an 80 per cent reduction, some sectors felt that if they highlighted their problems well enough they could end up in the remaining 20 per cent. Net zero means we are hearing a lot more about solutions than problems.’

Momentum is important and Thompson believes that change can happen quite quickly. ‘Industry responds to demand, so by 2040, with electric vehicles you may find there are fewer petrol stations and fewer mechanics who know how to fix your petrol car, or who see money to be made from it,’ he says. ‘The old ways become harder to do and the new ways become easier.’

Yet there are suspicions that net zero is a convenient way to kick the can down the road. The concept has even inserted daylight between the UN’s premier science base and the teenage activist Greta Thunberg, who tweeted earlier this year that net zero was a means to postpone real action. When Thunberg says one thing, and asset managers and multi-billion-pound companies (many of them enthusiastic about net zero) another, you might instinctively lean towards the Swede’s perspective.

‘It is a completely valid point,’ acknowledges James Murray, editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen, a news site dedicated to the green economy. ‘There are bad actors out there who use net zero as a smokescreen for business as usual.’ However, he cautions that legitimate critiques of net-zero strategies risk tipping over into a knee-jerk dismissal of the concept as a whole.

Thompson, on the other hand, rejects the idea that net zero is ultimately all about window dressing. ‘There’s not much sign of that in the UK – the reductions in emissions that have happened are real,’ he says. ‘Inaction is a risk, but I don’t think it is easy for a corporate to declare a net-zero target and then do nothing.’

Any NGO is going to be wary of criticising Thunberg, so O’Dowd from WWF chooses her words carefully. Ultimately ‘we’ve got to work with what we have’, she says. ‘We would love to be in a place where we can take an absolutist approach to emissions, but we are not on track. We need to focus on short-term actions that can be delivered now.’

Murray agrees that real action has to happen in practice, not theory. ‘If you say we have to go for absolute zero emissions right now, then you are literally saying we have to get rid of livestock farming, heavy industry and international aviation,’ he says. ‘It’s incredibly hard to see how you keep the global economy going if you do that. It’s not credible; we will have carbon left over and if that’s the case, then you need to have a way of soaking it up.’

They get mentioned again and again, these tricky customers of decarbonisation. But what makes cement and steel so difficult to clean up? It comes down to the fact that carbon emissions are inherent in the process of creating both materials – they aren’t just a result of burning fossil fuels for heat and energy to drive the processes. In cement-making, calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form of limestone is chemically reduced to form calcium oxide (CaO), commonly known as quicklime. Carbon dioxide (which makes up 40 per cent of the weight of limestone) is produced as a byproduct of this reaction, so much so that the cement industry contributes seven per cent of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Steel production equates to about eight per cent of global CO2 emissions. Like cement, the process of making steel – in which iron ore, coke (from coal) and limestone are combined – releases CO2. There are ways in which these industries could be made to clean up, from introducing carbon capture and storage to the more complex use of hydrogen (for steel making), but if we are to reach net zero by 2050, some form of offsets are going to be necessary.

While there are examples of greenwashing, Murray points out that more than 2,100 of the world’s largest corporations have set net-zero goals under the UN-backed Race to Zero campaign. ‘Amazon is making all of its delivery vehicles run on electricity,’ he says. ‘Competitors will have to follow suit. It’s entirely possible that inside ten years, the bulk of the world’s delivery fleet will run on electric.’ He adds that ‘since net zero became a top-level policy, two thirds of global GDP is now covered by some form of target. The bulk of the global auto industry has publicly committed to electrifying all their models and renewables are the default source of new capacity in the majority of markets around the world.’ Murray also notes that coal companies are going bankrupt and ‘oil majors are totting up their write downs, national climate laws are being rushed onto statute books and billions of dollars of R&D funding is flowing into green aviation and shipping, smart grids and energy storage.’

The global picture is encouraging, agrees Thompson. ‘Net zero is now the norm; more than half the world’s economy is committed to net zero. China is aiming for 2060, Japan and Canada are also committed, although there are a few outliers, such as Australia and India.’

So how do we ensure that governments and companies keep their promises? WWF has launched a call for action, asking its supporters and the public, as well as businesses, to constantly remind decision makers of the pledges they’ve made. ‘We have to make sure that the promises they make are harder to break,’ says O’Dowd.

shutterstock 399624961The Tata Steelworks factory in Scunthorpe, UK. Heavy industry such as this is difficult to decarbonise and any netzero plan will therefore rely on some form of offsets. Image: Claire Louise Jackson

Thompson supports the UK’s interim targets for 2030 and 2035 for proportionate reductions in energy and measures such as the introduction of electric vehicles. ‘Most of the big changes that get us to 2050 are going to happen in the next decade. By the time we get to 2040, most of these measures should be in place. We’ll all be driving electric and power stations will be using renewable energy. A low-carbon economy will just be how it is. Essentially, the last ten years will be a case of rolling that through.

These timescales are important, says Murray, who is wary of the narrative that such actions are purely for the benefit of future generations. ‘This isn’t something just for our children or grandchildren,’ he argues, ‘it’s going to happen over the next 30 years. That’s my lifetime – it’s a very short historic period in which to make this massive epic global shift.’

The most difficult challenges are still to come, warns Thompson. ‘The key is public consent,’ he says. ‘So far, the public hasn’t had much of their lives changed – you flick a switch and you can’t actually tell if your electricity is gas-fired or renewable. People will notice if they are driving electric vehicles or get asked to change their diet to eat less meat.’

Perhaps net zero is like a circus big top, a metonym for all the actions that need to take place within it. The concept’s all-encompassing nature gives it real psychological value, suggests Murray. ‘There are faults with net zero, but as Churchill said of democracy, it’s the least-worst option we have.’ Things could get messy he warns, because action has started too late – even if net zero works, we’ll still face climate consequences at the time we achieve net zero. ‘The idea of a clean-tech utopia and a carbon-ravaged dystopia are not mutually exclusive,’ he cautions. ‘We will see decarbonisation of most of the world’s energy systems, but we could equally fall short and face escalating climate impacts.’

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