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What Does Net Zero Mean and Why Is It Important?

CRISIS - Atmospheric CO2 Levels by Jane Marsh Global Commons Apr 19th 20236 mins
What Does Net Zero Mean and Why Is It Important?

The concept of ‘net zero’ has been around for a while and a day doesn’t go by without someone mentioning it. Net zero is about recognising and reducing humans’ impact on the climate and it is shaping political and economic strategies around the world, with impacts on a local, national, and even international level. What does net zero truly mean and why is it on everyone’s lips?

What Does Net Zero Mean? 

The concept of net zero revolves around reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2). As the United Nations puts it: ​​”Net zero means cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere, by oceans and forests for instance.”

Individuals, companies, and governments around the world aim to generate as few emissions as possible – or remove an equal amount from the atmosphere as what they produce. Net-zero goals are meant to prevent global average temperatures from rising further.

Since emissions remain trapped in the atmosphere for long periods of time and directly impact global temperatures, true net-zero targets are by definition incompatible with fossil fuels – even if we scale up renewable energy or plant trees to balance their output.

In recent years, most countries in the world set net zero goals, developing policies and regulations that will help them reach the goal of lowering their emissions and eventually reaching carbon neutrality.

You might also like: 3 Carbon Capture Technologies We Must Scale Up to Meet Net Zero

The Importance of Net Zero

The concept of net zero is important because it directly impacts the health of humans and the environment. Greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for a long time, so it is useful to have a universal term that references a solution. Additionally, many governments use net-zero ideas to develop laws and regulations directly aimed at protecting the planet. 

Some people may think their involvement stops with their contributions or their governments’ commitments, but the concept of net zero affects everyone. Regardless of which countries emit greenhouse gasses, they spread equally worldwide after mixing in the atmosphere and their effects spare nobody.

Since even a small shift in global temperatures can have devastating effects, countries need to get involved in reducing their CO2 emissions. An increase of a single degree can result in devastating heatwaves, droughts, and floods that result in massive ecological losses and displace entire communities. And this oftentimes happens in countries that contribute the least to global emissions and yet are the most vulnerable to a changing climate.

You might also like: How Marginalised Groups are Disproportionately Affected by Climate Change

A Brief History of Net Zero

While the concept was developed relatively recently, data on countries’ emissions and the dangers associated with them date back to around 1750. 

Out of over 1.5 trillion tons of CO2 emitted since then, nearly 25% comes from the US. China is a close second with almost 12% of global emissions.

Most countries started rapidly producing CO2 during the Industrial Revolution when technological advances contributed to their growing industries. CO2 emissions began to rise more steeply from the 1950s. By 2000, they had reached 25.23 billion metric tons of CO2 and by 2020, they had gotten as far as 34.81 billion metric tons. 

Global CO2 emissions per country. Graph: Our World in Data.

Global CO2 emissions per country. Graph: Our World in Data.

In its Fifth Assessment Report published in 2013, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had already warned the world of the necessity to limit the cumulative CO2 emissions in the atmosphere as the only way to eventually stop global warming, detailing how additions of CO2 into the atmosphere needed to reach zero. And yet, despite the worrisome data, most countries only recently started working towards net-zero goals. 

At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Paris, almost 200 countries adopted the historic Paris Agreement – the deal that popularised the term and unlocked countries’ efforts to cut carbon emissions. And yet, despite only becoming mainstream less than a decade ago, the concept has already been popular and extensively discussed among the scientific community for years.

Even after the Paris Agreement popularised the concept of reaching net zero, the amount of CO2 worldwide kept rising, reaching 36.6 billion metric tons in 2022 – a nearly 2 billion ton rise in just two years. The top contributors worldwide – China, the US, India, Russia, Japan, Iran, and the European Union – were behind almost 50% of total global emissions in 2020.

You might also like: Achieving Net Zero: Where Are We Today?

The Benefits of Net-Zero Policies

While most countries have only recently begun implementing net-zero targets and policies, these strategies still have huge significance and impact, benefitting the environment and communities around the world. 

There are many benefits to net-zero laws and regulations:

Climate change affects everyone, so combined efforts to create net-zero policies are beneficial for the world. 

But individuals can take various steps to benefit the climate, too. For example, by reducing one’s environmental footprint, saving energy, recycling, and recurring to more sustainable alternatives in terms of clothes, packaging, food, etc. While people can do so individually, countries can provide support and infrastructure.

To learn more about how you can contribute on an individual level to the protection of our planet, check out our new section: What Can I Do?

How Are Countries Taking Action Toward Net-Zero Goals?

Countries must look at how they contribute to CO2 emissions to find relevant solutions. Those in the top three industries leading climate change emissions — electricity, transportation, as well as manufacturing, and construction – should take special care to achieve carbon neutrality. Less reliance on fossil fuels, increased renewable energy sources, unique sustainable policies, and recycling all contribute to cutting emissions. On top of that, companies can opt to buy carbon offsets to further reduce their carbon footprint.

More on the topic: Is Carbon Offset a Form of Greenwashing?

As of 2022, eight countries, including Bhutan, Gabon, Madagascar, and Panama have achieved net-zero emissions and many more have net-zero policies with clear goals and timelines. Credible plans and continued commitment help the effort to reach net zero because they allow people to track progress and hold their governments accountable. Many pacts, programmes, and binding agreements on an international level are also already in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the world.

About the Author

Jane Marsh

Jane works as the founder and editor-in-chief of Environment.co. She specialises in covering topics in sustainability, renewable energy and environmental policy.

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