Net-zero carbon

What is a net-zero carbon target?

A “net-zero” target refers to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by a selected date, but differs from zero carbon, which requires no carbon to be emitted as the key criteria.

Net-zero refers to balancing the amount of emitted greenhouse gases with the equivalent emissions that are either offset or sequestered. This should primarily be achieved through a rapid reduction in carbon emissions, but where zero carbon cannot be achieved, offsetting through carbon credits or sequestration through rewilding or carbon capture and storage needs to be utilised.

Why does the UK need a net-zero carbon target?

Globally, research suggests that humanity must reach net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest in order to have a reasonable chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C – the more ambitious target of the Paris Agreement.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report in October 2018, highlighted that the world is already 1C warmer than pre-industrial levels, and that an increase to 2C would significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

In recent weeks, numerous high-profile school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion protests have painted a clear picture that the UK’s current efforts to combat climate change aren’t ambitious enough.

Protestors, including the influential 16-year old Greta Thunberg have called for the UK Government to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by 2025.

What is the UK’s current carbon reduction strategy?

Currently, the UK is targeting an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 against a 1990 baseline through the 2008 Climate Change Act. 

The UK is currently off-track to meet future carbon budgets – notably the fourth and fifth – and will need to reduce emissions by at least 3% annually to reach its 80% target by 2050.

Despite claiming it is a “world leader” regarding emissions reduction, the UK Government has come under fire for an antiquated, yet commonly used, approach to carbon accounting.

The UK Climate Change Act covers all sectors, although international aviation and shipping are measured on a “territorial basis”. The UK isn’t the only nation to use this approach, in fact, any country submitting information through the Kyoto Protocol does so using territorial emissions.

Territorial emissions account for what happens within a country’s borders, which therefore ignores the emissions of transport, once it leaves a national border.

Emissions in 2017 were 43% below 1990 levels, while the economy grew by two-thirds, according to the latest Government statistics. However, if the territorial approach was replaced, it is believed that total emissions reductions are closer to 10% since 1997.

What are the challenges of setting a net-zero carbon target?

A major stumbling block of setting a net-zero target is ensuring that it aligns to some sort of global notion on combating climate change. Net-zero targets can be undefined and benefit most from having time-based targets up to an endpoint where carbon neutrality is eventually met.

For example, some firms that have set science-based targets have done so via incremental targets that increase carbon reduction ambitions after certain time periods. If a company or nation were to set a net-zero target for 2050 and not act on that target to until the 2040s, it isn’t aligned to climate science or the Paris Agreement.

Net-zero is lacking definition on accountable carbon emissions. For national targets, territorial emissions can negate some of the largest impacts for carbon-intensive sectors. For businesses, there’s no real definition requiring action outside of that company’s operations, meaning Scope 3 (value chain emissions) are at risk of being ignored.

Finally, net-zero runs the risk of relying on offsets rather than rapid decarbonisation. A company could maintain emissions at a steady level using carbon credits or offsetting mechanisms to reach net-zero, negating the need to actually reduce their own emissions.

How are businesses transitioning to net-zero carbon?

Net-zero ambitions largely vary sector by sector, by companies large and small have formed numerous coalitions that focus on net-zero as an aspiration, rather than deliverable targets.

The Net-Zero 2050 Team, for example, was set up by the B Team. It is a group of chief executives that have committed their businesses to setting science-based targets as well as reaching net-zero status by 2050.

Elsewhere, a number of the biggest companies within the UK's built environment sector, including JLL, Landsec and Wilmott Dixon, have jointly formed a new task group aimed at creating an industry-led framework for net-zero carbon buildings.

See also: Carbon-negative

See also: Zero-carbon