“If we fail to cope with this challenge, all the other problems will pale into insignificance.”
H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, quoting her late husband the Duke of Edinburgh,
in her welcome address to Cop26 delegates in Glasgow
Today we frequently hear the terms ‘carbon neutral’ and net-zero emissions, but how many of us know what they actually mean? And why are they so important?
In simple terms, carbon neutral means that any carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere from the activities of individuals or a company is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed. Net-Zero carbon emissions mean that an activity releases no carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
With the urgent struggle on hand to cut greenhouse gases that are causing a dangerous rise in global temperatures, governments, agencies, companies and individuals are increasingly looking for ways to reduce or offset their carbon footprint. Wholly achieving this is currently a hard ask, but governments and energy agencies are setting targets and implementing actions to encourage or force people to move towards carbon neutral and net-zero in certain sectors within challenging timeframes.
The world has a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally, (IEA Report, May 2021).
TechnologyThe Net Zero by 2050 Report by the International Energy Agency underlined that the technology needed to reach net zero is readily achievable. Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director said: “These technologies are already invented, but not yet in full development. Innovation is critical, but the technologies are here with us.”
The crucial new technologies in development are advanced batteries, particularly for use in electric vehicles; hydrogen; and carbon capture. The last of these refers to the process of capturing and storing CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere.
PolicyJust one example. At the World Economic Forum in July 2021, ahead of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November, EU policymakers outlined ideas on how the bloc's countries can reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, a step towards net zero emissions by 2050. Tighter emission limits for cars will in effect end new petrol and diesel car sales in the EU by 2035.
Some individual governments are setting even tighter deadlines, with the UK, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands on course to ban the sale of new cars and vans powered entirely by petrol and diesel by 2030, and Norway even sooner in 2025.
Even looking at everyday activities can bring some surprises when calculating a company’s carbon footprint. Using a computer, organising a conference call, or even simply sending an email all add up. It’s been calculated that, by 2040, 14% of all greenhouse gases emissions will be due to our digital activities.While many companies now are doing their best to reduce their harmful carbon emitting activities by detailed measurement and reorganisation, some emissions are impossible to eliminate, the so-called “irreducible emissions”. These need to be dealt with by making sure they are balanced out in some way.
Carbon creditsOnce the impact of a company’s activities, or of a single project, in terms of the quantity of CO2 produced, has been established, it can be balanced out by the acquisition of a corresponding number of “carbon credits”. Every carbon credit corresponds to 1 ton of CO2.
The credits then fund projects that trap or remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as reforesting, rewilding wetlands, methane capture, creation of windfarms, the installation of solar energy or hydropower.
IndividualsAnd what can we as individuals do to live a more carbon neutral life? While the Covid19 pandemic has hugely reduced the opportunities for travel, and given the planet a short moment to breathe cleaner air, many of us are desperate to return to our old ways, both for business and for pleasure. This is a good moment to think about our travel carbon footprint, and maybe reduce the number of times we fly, or find other less polluting ways to travel. And even small daily changes can make a massive difference: eating fewer animal products, shopping locally, driving less, and reducing your waste - it all adds up.
And let’s face it, we all know that cutting the amount of time we spend in front of screens is good for our health. It’s also good for the planet. The less energy we use, the less carbon gets boosted into the atmosphere.
“Overall, becoming a carbon-neutral country would involve changes in our behaviour, but these are modest compared with the changes that will be forced upon us if we do nothing.”
― Caroline Lucas, UK politician