What is the role of net zero in tackling emissions?
The chances are that you’ve come across a company or two that has made the pledge to net zero. There’s also a good chance that you’re living in a country or a city that has set a net zero target for the upcoming decades. Net zero pledges are a common way to showcase commitment to tackle the climate crisis, but there needs to be more to the story if we wish to truly make a difference.
It is absolutely crucial for the future of our planet to remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. Making net-zero targets is therefore important. However, going net-zero shouldn’t be the only goal of companies or governments. It is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough that we remove the same amount of carbon dioxide that we produce from the atmosphere – we must also actively reduce emissions.
Why is net zero not enough?
Net zero sounds like an ambitious goal. Achieving the balance between the produced emissions and emissions that are removed from the atmosphere seems like a huge step forward if we think about the history of producing emissions. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has grown ever since the industrial revolution started, but the concept of negative emissions - withdrawal of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere - is still fairly new.
However, net zero is exactly what it sounds like: the zero-sum of the produced emissions and those that are removed from the atmosphere. It sets no limits to the emissions that are produced in the first place. This immediately creates two issues:
- Net zero focuses on balancing current emissions with negative emissions. Even though some companies have made commitments to tackle their historical emissions as well, there are hundreds of years’ worth of unclaimed emissions in the atmosphere that nobody is claiming.
- It is not possible to remove all the excess carbon at the rate that we’re currently producing it. Technologies are being constantly developed and they will provide effective solutions in the future. However, the idea that there are no limits to removing carbon by nature-based solutions such as planting trees is simply false.
Contrary to what one may think, these factors don’t make net zero strategies pointless. Net zero strategies are an important part of tackling emissions, but further steps are required to deal with the climate crisis. To be able to remove all the historical emissions as well as meet the technological and planetary limits, we must also reduce them.
Is net zero a valid concept?
There is plenty of scepticism when it comes to net-zero. There are scientists that argue that net zero goals and negative emissions are pointless and that they distract us from the real problem which is radically reducing emissions. One of the common arguments against net zero is the excuse that it gives for companies and governments not to reduce their emissions. Instead of reducing emissions, they can simply pay their way out of their environmental responsibilities. Another common argument is that we lack the proper technology to efficiently remove carbon from the atmosphere.
These concerns are understandable. The way in which these arguments are used to direct conversation from net zero towards reducing emissions also makes sense – we won’t reach a sustainable future without reducing emissions after all. However, there are some important factors that these critiques don’t take into account. These factors are absolutely crucial for understanding the dynamics of net zero, reducing emissions, and the current state of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The cost of net zero
It is easy to believe that companies would choose to compensate for their emissions financially rather than actively work on reducing them. However, the truth is that in many cases reaching net-zero will be more expensive in comparison to reducing emissions. The reason for this is that cheap carbon offsets or carbon credits don’t count towards net zero. It is therefore financially beneficial for companies to reduce their emissions before moving towards net-zero. Companies are seeking to maximize their profit, after all, and if reducing emissions over net zero is the way to cut expenses, it is only logical for them to do so.
Carbon removal technologies are crucial
Developing carbon removal technologies needs to happen. There is no way out of it. This is not to say that the technologies that exist today would be perfect: many of them need to be developed further to be able to remove carbon from the atmosphere to the extent that is necessary, as well as to reduce the cost of the technologies. However, the sceptics of carbon removal technologies ignore the very fact that evolving these technologies is crucial for our future.
But why are emissions removal technologies so important? Our first problem is that the planet is unable to fix the problem of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere naturally – at least within a sustainable timescale. The second problem is that even if we’d manage to reduce our emissions to zero, the greenhouse gases that have been generated up to this day will remain in the atmosphere. These excess gases will then continue to contribute to the climate crisis.
As the gases aren’t going anywhere naturally and there is a limited planetary capacity to remove carbon through nature-based solutions such as tree planting, the need to develop carbon removal technologies is essential to combat the climate crisis.
Do we need net zero targets if we reduce our emissions?
We can’t rely on net-zero as an excuse to continue business as usual.
It is simply not sustainable to keep the emission levels where they are today and address the issue by throwing more money into it. However, net zero is not an evil that we should fight. Reducing emissions is crucial, but there are - and will be - unavoidable emissions. We won’t be able to reduce our emissions down to zero. We must also consider the historical emissions that are already in the atmosphere and therefore beyond the solution of reduction. Negative emissions are the only opportunity to tackle these.
Negative emissions are not the ultimate solution, but they bridge the gap to a zero emissions society. They have an important role to play alongside reducing emissions and because of that, it is dangerous to demonize the concept of net zero. In the long run, the negative portrayal of net zero might even compromise climate action.
A good example of this is the development of carbon removal technologies. As it was established earlier, these technologies are essential to remove the excess carbon from the atmosphere. However, lots of technological development also needs to happen to make them more efficient and affordable. If we present reducing emissions as the key solution to the climate crisis, and deem carbon removal technologies pointless, we will risk the financing and development of the technologies that we are going to need in the future.
Net zero and reducing emissions both need to happen
The relationship between reducing emissions and net zero might seem complex, but the solution to tackle the excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is pretty straightforward: both net zero and emission reductions need to happen.
To be able to effectively address the climate crisis, we shouldn’t use one or another but make the best out of both of them. Net zero commitments alone won’t solve the climate crisis and it’s unrealistic to expect that the global greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced all the way down to zero.
In the best case scenario net zero and emission reduction complement one another. Instead of choosing to balance emissions with net zero targets or reducing overall emissions, companies and governments should aim to do both. They should seek to reduce their emissions to the bare minimum and use net zero strategies to cover the unavoidable emissions.
Taking one action to reduce emissions shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not to take another. Combatting the climate crisis requires all the action we can take.