More and more companies are committing to emitting “net zero” emissions to fight climate change, but what does that really mean?

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The world’s pledges to date are not enough to stop climate change, UN data shows. Metamorworks via Getty Images

By Amrou Awaysheh, Assistant Professor of Operations Management and Executive Director, Business Sustainability Lab, Indiana University

You will probably hear the term ‘net emissions’ a lot over the next few weeks as heads of government and CEOs, under pressure, talk about how they are going to cut. their countries Where companies’ impact on climate change. Amazon, for example, just announced that more than 200 companies have now joined its Climate commitment, committing to achieve net zero emissions by 2040.

But what does zero net emissions really mean?

“Zero emissions” – without the caveat “net” – means not to emit greenhouse gases.

“Net zero emissions” has more leeway. It’s like balancing a checkbook. The country or company cuts most of its emissions through efficiency and clean energy, then offsets the rest by remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or eliminate emissions elsewhere.

For example, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air, so they are often considered “negative emissions”. The small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan can claim net zero emissions because almost all of its electricity comes from hydropower and its forests sequester around three more time carbon that its vehicles, factories and other human activities do not emit.

Companies have another way to claim net zero emissions – they can profit from carbon reductions elsewhere by buy carbon credits. For example, an American company could pay to protect the forests of South America, then subtract the negative emissions from those trees from its own emissions to say that its operations are “net-zero”. Other carbon credits support sustainable development projects, like installation wind or solar energy in the poorest countries.

But counting on carbon credits too attracts criticism, because it allows these companies to continue to generate greenhouse gases. Other concerns are that some projects would happen anyway, emission reductions may not be permanent or even verifiable, or they might get counted twice by more than one entity. Some projects, like planting trees, can take years to pay emission reductions while companies that buy forest offsets continue to emit greenhouse gases.

Why are net zero emissions important?

Greenhouse gases trap heat near the Earth’s surface. When their concentrations climb too high, they are fueling global warming.

In 2015, countries around the world agreed to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) compared to pre-industrial times, with a target of 1.5 C (2.7 F). To keep warming below 1.5 ° C with the least amount of disruption, the United Nations says the world must be on track to achieve zero net emissions by around 2050. To put those temperatures into perspective, today’s global warming is just over 1 C (1.8 F) above pre-industrial levels, and rising seas and extreme weather conditions are already a problem.

Many countries, including the United States, pledged to achieve the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. But when the UN analyzed each country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement in mid-September, it found that they always below so much that even if every pledge is honored, temperatures will rise by approximately 2.7 C (4.86 F) this century.

Graph showing temperature limits and emission trajectories to reach them.
Maintaining global warming at 1.5 C will require negative greenhouse gas emissions. Climate Analysis and NewClimate Institute

How a business achieves net zero emissions

To see how a company could achieve net zero emissions, imagine a hypothetical company, ChipCo, which manufactures, packages and distributes crisps. ChipCo buys electricity from a local utility to run the machines at its factory. It also has boilers to generate steam for heating the building and for certain production processes. And it uses delivery trucks to transport its products to customers. Each step generates greenhouse gas emissions.

To achieve net zero emissions, ChipCo’s first step is to increase energy efficiency. Improving insulation and equipment can reduce the amount of energy needed or wasted. A simple example is to replace incandescent bulbs that consume 60 watts of energy with LED bulbs that give off the same brightness, but only consume 8 watts.

The second step is to move away from fossil fuels – the main source of greenhouse gas emissions of human origin – to renewable energies, like solar or wind power, which does not produce greenhouse gas emissions. Once the company’s electricity is renewable, the use of electric delivery vehicles further reduces emissions.

Houses and office buildings can also be built for net zero or carbon neutral standards. In this case, the focus is on making them extremely energy efficient and relying on heating and electricity from clean energy sources.

The third step of ChipCo is to find negative emissions. It might be too expensive or not yet technologically possible for it to replace its steam boiler with a carbon neutral product. Instead, ChipCo could purchase carbon credits that would remove the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere that would be generated by the boiler.

Companies are under increasing pressure from governments, activists and their customers, as well as some powerful investors, to reduce their emissions.

To find out if a company takes its responsibilities seriously, research its action plan and performance to date. A company that announces a net zero goal of 2030 can’t wait until 2029 to take action. There needs to be a coherent path for energy efficiency and clean energy improvements, not just carbon pledges and offsets.

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license.


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