Tabitha Whiting
Tabitha WhitingContent & Growth Marketing
The true definition of net zero, explained
The true definition of net zero, explained
We see the term ‘net zero’ used all over the place, particularly by businesses. But often it’s misinterpreted. For Net Zero Week 2022 we explain the true definition of net zero – and its implications for businesses.
June 20, 2022

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The term ‘net zero’ is used pretty loosely in the context of climate targets. 

But it actually has a very specific definition – and understanding that might change how your business approaches sustainability initiatives. But according to the UK Public Attitudes Tracker, just 5% of the UK public actually have an understanding of what net zero is.

Just 5% of the UK public has an understanding of what net zero is, despite 82% expressing concerns about climate change

With Net Zero Week coming up soon (2-8 July 2022) we know there will be lots of businesses talking about their net zero goals and targets, and we want to help you to approach climate and net zero in the right way.

So in this post we’re starting by defining net zero – highlighting two important parts of the definition which are often misunderstood – and putting net zero into context for businesses, including two very important pieces of advice. 

Defining net zero

Net zero refers to a state where the greenhouse gas emissions entering the atmosphere are balanced out by emissions removed from the atmosphere – resulting in no net impact being made. In practice, this means reducing emissions as much as possible, and neutralising any residual emissions using carbon removal. 

There are two key elements to note in this definition:

  • The word ‘net’
  • The use of carbon removals

The ‘net’ in net zero emissions

The Paris Agreement made net zero an official climate target, requiring members to ‘achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’. 

It’s this idea of ‘balance’ which is key.

In theory we could reach zero emissions by reducing emissions in their entirety, so that zero greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. 

But this isn’t realistically possible, and definitely not on the timescale that we need. 

So, as well as deep emissions cuts we also need carbon removals to remove existing emissions from the atmosphere. 

Net zero and carbon removals

Net zero specifically requires that CO2 is removed from the atmosphere, at an equivalent amount to any remaining, unavoidable emissions made – meaning that any carbon credits purchased as part of a net zero commitment must be carbon removal credits, such as enhanced weathering, reforestation, or direct air capture projects.

This is where mix-ups can happen with the use of the term net zero.

An individual, business, country etc cannot claim to have reached net zero emissions if they offset their residual emissions using emissions avoidance credits which prevent further emissions happening elsewhere, such as renewable energy, forestry conservation, or carbon capture and storage projects.

They would be ‘carbon neutral’ – but not ‘net zero’.

Carbon neutral: where the total amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced is offset in its entirety by either carbon removal or emissions avoidance, offsetting the impact.

Take this example, for instance.

A company emits 2 tonnes of CO2 through transportation, whilst delivering a product from a warehouse to a customer’s home. You could choose to offset that through:

  • Purchasing 2 tonnes of carbon credits from emissions avoidance projects, preventing 2 tonnes of CO2 from being emitted elsewhere – this would make the company's emissions 'carbon neutral'.
  • Purchasing 2 tonnes of carbon credits from carbon removal projects, removing 2 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – this would make the company's emissions 'net zero'.

Net zero in a business context – two important pieces of advice

Understanding the true definition of net zero has two very important implications for how businesses approach making net zero targets.

Be careful when making net zero claims

The first is that you need to be careful with your net zero claims. If you want your business to be net zero as an entity, you need to do two things:

  • Reduce your scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions  as much as you possibly can. We’d recommend using a rigorous and trusted standard such as Science Based Targets to plan how you do this. 
  • For any unavoidable, residual emissions, purchase an equivalent amount of carbon credits from carbon removal projects – not emissions avoidance.

It’s worth noting that it may not be feasible to purchase only carbon removals right now – many carbon removal technologies are early-stage, meaning there are limited carbon removal credits available, and those that do exist are expensive. That’s why the Oxford Offsetting Principles for Net Zero Aligned Offsetting advocates building an offsetting portfolio which includes emissions reduction in the short-term, but shifts spend towards long-lived carbon removal by 2050. 

Net zero isn’t necessarily the best way for businesses to have climate impact

The second point to make is that the scientific targets (Paris Agreement, IPCC etc) of net zero emissions by 2050 are global targets, needing the world as a whole to reach net zero emissions.

Many of us have interpreted that to mean that individual actors must achieve net zero emissions. That’s why so many businesses have targets to reach net zero emissions for their own company’s carbon footprint. 

In reality, that completely misses the mark.

Most businesses have a small carbon footprint compared to our total global greenhouse gas emissions, so a business reaching net zero emissions themselves is unlikely to have much positive impact at all.

Instead, the point is that we all – individuals, businesses, governments, countries – need to be doing as much as we can to contribute to the global target of net zero.

That means shifting from addressing our own emissions, to looking at ways that we can be a part of the global solution to climate change. 

For businesses, we think there are two key ways to do this: 

  • Committing to making financial contributions to early-stage, high-impact carbon removals projects – regardless of your own carbon footprint
  • Use your network and influence to have an exponential climate impact, particularly identifying ways to embed climate impact into your product or service.

Of course, effective communication also plays a huge role in this – which is why whenever we work with businesses on their climate initiatives we always support them with safely communicating climate, including marketing templates and messaging suggestions.

If you’re keen to get started with maximising the positive impact you can have as a business, get in touch – we’re experts at creating climate positive customer experiences, and we’d love to brainstorm with you.

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