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Net zero (noun). Meaning … well, that’s the question

Hundreds of governments and companies have 'net zero' policies. But the term's definition isn't always clear

A delegate from the Flemish regional government at a net zero forum in Vietnam. More than 50 countries have net zero policies Belga via Reuters Connect
A delegate from the Flemish regional government at a net zero forum in Vietnam. More than 50 countries have net zero policies

With almost 2.4 billion hits on Google and a place in the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “net zero” must be one of the most successful additions to the language in recent years.

It also seems to be one of the most popular strategies among governments and corporations. 

According to the website Net Zero Tracker, 27 countries have net zero laws, 51 – including the UAE – have net zero policies, eight have net zero pledges and 59 net zero proposals. 

Six countries have already “achieved (self-declared) net zero”, the tracker reports. They include Bhutan and Suriname, which are now considered “net negative”.

Around a third of the world’s 2,000 largest publicly traded companies also have net zero strategies, with more announcing net zero targets every day.  

But what does net zero actually mean? Recent headlines provide a variety of answers.

Cars, costs and carbon targets

Ed Miliband, the UK’s shadow secretary of state for energy security and net zero, told reporters in London last week that it means “putting money in people’s pockets”. 

Researchers at ICRA, an Indian ratings agency, have suggested that it is about “saving on high import costs”. 

For large numbers of people, it is about installing more renewable energy, driving an electric car or switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs.

For many, too, net zero is the end goal of a programme of emissions reduction – sometimes just of carbon, other times of the whole range of greenhouse gases.

In a recent report, insurance broker Marsh set up a hypothetical company called Avocado and examined the various risks it could face while transiting to net zero.

Avocado decides to pursue a stepped approach typical of many companies and governments, Marsh wrote.

First, this involves a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 (not net emissions), then an 80 percent reduction by 2040 and, finally, net zero by 2050. 

Does that mean Avocado will not be producing any emissions at all – a 100 percent reduction – by that 2050 date?

No, it does not. Because net zero emissions – at least in its original and scientific sense – is far from the same as zero emissions.

It is also different from net zero carbon, zero carbon or carbon neutrality.

All of these three concentrate entirely on carbon, while net zero emissions means net zero for all of the greenhouse gases – which also include methane, nitrous oxide and a range of hydro-fluorocarbons.

The UN definition: a balancing act

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defines net zero as a balancing act between greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere and greenhouse gases coming out.

If the amount going in is the same as the amount coming out, net zero emissions have been achieved.

Ideally, too, this should be maintained for decades in order to scrub out the massive net-positive emissions our era has produced – and continues to produce. 

In other words, Avocado’s 2050 target is a qualitatively different thing from its 2030 and 2040 emissions reduction goals. To achieve net zero, the hypothetical company has somehow to remove an amount of gases from the atmosphere that is equivalent to the emissions it is putting in. 

Adding renewable energy capacity, switching to hydrogen or installing smart meters is only one half of the equation. The other half – the removal of greenhouse gases – requires just as much attention, if net zero is to be achieved. 

Examples of techniques that actively remove gases include direct air capture and storage. This works by setting up what are essentially giant air purifiers, sucking in air and stripping it of gases. 

An Emirati example of this is Adnoc’s Habshan carbon capture and storage project, which aims to scrub greenhouse gases from emissions at the country’s refineries.

Another way of extracting greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is planting trees and other plants. Planting new ones, that is. Paying people not to cut down or burn existing forests may be valuable, but it does not increase the amount of gas being removed. 

Theoretically, Avocado could actually increase its emissions and still hit net zero, if it could cancel out the extra gases with extra removals.

This would not be such an unusual strategy, either.

When the UAE and other Gulf states add refinery capacity, for example, this almost certainly means extra emissions – even with highly efficient carbon capture techniques. This can be balanced out, however, with greenhouse gas capture processes elsewhere.

So, when it comes to net zero, focusing on the word “net” can produce a range of possible strategies. It can also – hopefully – prevent confusion as well as, of course, “putting money in people’s pockets”. 

Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist specialising in European and Middle Eastern affairs

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