COP26’s stated mitigation goal is to “Secure global net zero and keep 1.5 degrees within reach.” This fifth article of our Road to COP26 series explains what global net zero means – and what it will take to get there.
What is net zero?
Net zero is a state in which the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere is counterbalanced by removing an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases.
In a system that has reached net zero, the total amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere will remain constant.
In practice, net zero is most often discussed in relation to companies and countries, which set net zero targets to guide their GHG reduction efforts. But reaching net zero can also be a goal for individual people, industries, geographic regions – and, in the case of COP26, even the entire planet:
“Secure global net zero and keep 1.5° within reach.“
– COP26 goal for mitigation
What will it take to reach global net zero?
Before the industrial revolution, Earth had its own natural balance system which kept GHG levels stable.
“Chemistry regulates this dance between ocean, land, and atmosphere. If carbon dioxide rises in the atmosphere because of an increase in volcanic activity, for example, temperatures rise, leading to more rain, which dissolves more rock, creating more ions that will eventually deposit more carbon on the ocean floor.
– From The Carbon Cycle, NASA Earth Observatory
This natural balancing act works in various cycles – the longest of which take a few hundred thousand years – and is not adapted to the post-Industrial Revolution increases in human-made GHG emissions.
To cope with the increase in anthropogenic GHG emissions, a combination of GHG reduction and removal is now needed to reach global net zero.
Firstly, emissions should be reduced as much as possible.
The fewer emissions released, the fewer emissions that need to be removed from the atmosphere. The greenhouse gases we release today will stay in the atmosphere for 100 years, and GHG removal can take time, leaving a lag period where emissions remain in the atmosphere and contribute to increasing climate change.
Since it’s impossible to eliminate GHG emissions completely, it’s important to ensure that they have been reduced to the absolute minimum. The remaining GHG emissions should then be compensated by equivalent – or greater – removal actions.
There are a variety of GHG removal methods available. Most of these methods are based on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored indefinitely in vegetation, the ocean, or soil. This can include technical solutions such as vacuuming the CO2 from the atmosphere and binding it into stone, or natural solutions such as reforestation.
CDR may sound complicated – but if you’ve ever planted a seed or tended a garden then you’ve contributed to CDR!
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How will COP26 help get us there?
COP26 will audit the progress countries are making toward their net zero commitments.
As a result of COP21 in Paris, 190 states and the European Union agreed to reduce emissions to keep global temperature rise under certain limits, as part of the now-famous Paris Agreement. This agreement included a provision stating that every five years these parties would update their emissions targets and plans, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The first five-year cycle ended in 2020, so these parties will be expected to bring their progress reports and revised targets to COP26 in October 2021.
In February, the parties submitted their initial NDCs, but they were not in line with the emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
“The estimated reductions [submitted by the parties] fall far short of what is required, demonstrating the need for Parties to further strengthen their mitigation commitments under the Paris Agreement.”
– UNFCC NDC Synthesis Report
While COP26 can’t issue binding resolutions to these parties, it will be calling on the parties to set targets in line with limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C. COP26 will also advocate for three paths toward mitigation:
- Accelerate the transition from coal to clean power
- Protect and restore nature for the benefit of people and climate
- Accelerate the transition to zero emission vehicles
After the Paris Agreement, and especially in the wake of the sixth IPCC report, the need to reach net zero has become a major rallying cry among the climate-conscious. As COP26 draws closer, the pressure to act is mounting for the world leaders who will attend.
But whatever the conference’s outcome may be, the science is clear: if we want to keep the earth a hospitable home for living creatures, then every country – and company – should set a plan to reach net zero.
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