Net zero, explained

Sustainability

17. Jun 2022

Net zero

Evan Farbstein

Sustainability Writer

Aron Vallinder, PhD

Research Writer

What net zero means, why it goes beyond “carbon neutral,” and how your company can achieve it.

Evan Farbstein

Sustainability Writer

Aron Vallinder, PhD

Research Writer

You’ve seen the term “net zero” all over: in articles about climate change, in sustainability targets for governments and businesses, on ads for environmentally-friendly products.

Google searches for “net zero” have been on the rise for the past five years, and peaked during COP26 when world leaders gathered to measure progress toward the Paris Agreement target. And that target? Why, net zero, of course.

But what does this omnipresent term mean? How is it different from “carbon neutral”? And, if it’s so important to achieve, how can we go about actually getting there?

What is net zero?

Net zero is a state in which the total greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere are negated by an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas removal. 

In simpler terms, reaching net zero means that you don’t contribute any additional greenhouse gas to the atmosphere on balance – whatever you emit, you compensate with proportionate removal.

Getting to net zero

We need to reach global net zero by 2050 to mitigate the most harmful consequences of climate change. The graph below shows an example timeline for getting there:

Climate action graph

To fight climate change, companies need to reach net zero

To achieve global net zero, individual countries must collectively get there. And for that to happen, the companies operating within those countries need to get there.

For a company to reach net zero, the first step is to reduce its emissions as much as it can. However, there will almost always be some leftover emissions – called “residual emissions” – that can’t be eliminated.

The second step is to then purchase high-quality carbon removal to compensate these residual emissions.

There are no shortcuts to net zero. While on the surface it may seem tempting for a company to simply compensate its entire carbon footprint with carbon removal without taking any reduction measures, it’s not feasible in practice. Using high-quality carbon removal to cover all emissions would be prohibitively expensive.

In addition, there’s a risk that you won’t actually reach net zero by neglecting reduction and relying only on removal, since the technologies are still under development and we can’t be sure they will work as expected.

How is it different from “carbon neutral”?

The terms “carbon neutral” and “net zero” are sometimes used interchangeably. However, in practice, “carbon neutral” has become associated with the idea of paying for low-quality, ineffective carbon offsets instead of the permanent carbon removal needed to mitigate climate change.

How is it different from “climate positive”?

“Climate positive” (also referred to as “carbon negative”) means going beyond net zero and removing more carbon from the atmosphere than is emitted.

Where did the concept come from?

The concept originated when scientists realized that in order to mitigate global warming it would be necessary to reach a global state of net zero.

The concept was then popularized by the Paris Agreement:

Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible…. so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.

From the Paris Agreement

A small – and shrinking – window of opportunity

As the latest IPCC report made clear, we’re not on track to reach global net zero by 2050.

But, the report reminds us, we could still get there if we act quickly. To do so will require immediate and drastic action from businesses, and especially big businesses. 

Net zero is difficult – but not out of reach. And the best way you can join the global effort to reach it is by advocating for it within your own company.

Empower your company to reach net zero

Normative guides you along the entire path to net zero: from your initial carbon footprint measurement, to tailored carbon reduction guidance, and finally to bespoke carbon removal.

Book a demo