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What is…net zero?

You’ll have heard the term ‘net zero’ a lot lately but what does it mean and is it achievable?

Most people now accept scientific evidence - greenhouse gas emissions from human actions are causing the climate to change. When fossil fuels are burnt, carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted - it’s not the only greenhouse gas but it’s the most significant one so when you hear the term ‘carbon emissions’, it usually refers to all of the greenhouse gases. 'Net Zero' means balancing the volume of emissions produced with those removed from the atmosphere, basically when the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere is the same, or less, than the amount we take out.

With the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, governments across the world agreed to aim for net zero by 2050. 2050 was judged to be achievable as it balanced the overwhelming need to take action with the inevitable impact on the economy as all sectors - domestic, transport, agriculture and industry - would need to slash the amount of carbon they emitted through a range of measures such as carbon capture, carbon recycling and/or decarbonisation but for some industries, it would be complicated or costly so…there’s ‘carbon offsetting’ and ‘carbon credits’.

Eh? WTF does 'carbon offsetting’ and ‘carbon credit’ mean?

Net zero targets allow some emissions to be above zero as long as they are balanced out elsewhere. So for sectors where it would be difficult to reach zero emissions, like aviation, businesses can ‘neutralise’ their carbon emissions by investing in carbon reduction or offsetting projects like tree planting or landscape conservation, or the use of ‘carbon credits’ - certificates which can be sold by ‘under-emitting’ companies to over-emitting ones. Essentially companies meet their climate targets by purchasing credits from others – a bit like if every family was given a certain amount of carbon they were allowed to ‘spend’. If you had an electric car you could sell your ‘left-over’ carbon allowance to your next-door neighbour with a petrol/diesel car! So, as you can see net zero doesn’t necessarily mean reducing carbon emissions to zero, it just means ensuring keeping levels down so we don’t exceed the 1.5oC rise in temperature.

So, is net zero possible by 2050?

Although the government has set historic targets, according to their own independent advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), it has so far failed to produce the policies needed to reach them. Under fire for supporting the go-ahead of a new coalmine in Cumbria (currently subject to a public inquiry), new licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, a £27bn road-building plan, cutting air passenger duty on domestic flights, scrapping the green homes grant insulation programme and cutting incentives for electric cars, it’s probably not surprising! Two CCC reports released earlier this year, demonstrate that the UK is behind on its goal of 78% cuts to greenhouse gases by 2035. In order to get back on track, CCC have made more than 200 recommendations to ministers, including:

  • the phase-out of gas boilers

  • higher taxes on flights and carbon taxes on high carbon emitting sectors

  • regulations to ensure all new homes are built to low-carbon standards

  • public information campaigns to explain the changes needed

  • 150,000 public charge points for electric vehicles by 2025

  • public sector workers encouraged to work from home where possible

Although we have achieved emission reductions and increased the use of renewables since 1990, some sectors remain mostly unchanged - transportation, energy generation, commercial electricity use and residential heating still account for around 78% of current emissions. This month, the government released their Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener policy outlining their plan to get us to net zero by 2050. The proposals include all electricity coming from low carbon sources by 2035, the deployment of renewables such as wind and solar, final decision on a largescale nuclear plant, market-wide rollout of smart meters and exploring the need for long duration storage and hydrogen in power.

All very impressive and, if we combine these policies with carbon removal measures and reduce the burning of fossil fuels, we can tackle global warming. In principle, it’s a great idea, unfortunately this overwhelming faith in technological methods to rescue us reduces the sense of urgency we feel in the need to play our own small part. We all know what we need to do - be more efficient with the energy that we do use, so why not make a start NOW?