Net zero, explained


16. Dec 2022

Net zero
Headshot of Evan Farbstein

Evan Farbstein

Content manager

Dr Aron Vallinder

Scientific Writer

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

Headshot of Evan Farbstein

Evan Farbstein

Content manager

Read bio

Dr Aron Vallinder

Scientific Writer

Read bio

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.

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 along the way. 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.

Where did the concept come from?

The idea of net zero originated when scientists realized that in order to mitigate global warming it will be necessary to reach a global state of balance, when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

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. 

The 2050 target will be difficult to achieve – but it’s 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.


Frequently asked questions

What does it mean to be net zero?

If your organization has achieved net zero, it means you contribute no additional greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, on balance. All of the emissions you emit are balanced by a proportional amount of carbon removal.

How is net zero 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 net zero 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.

How do you know if you have reached net zero?

To track progress toward net zero, organizations need to use carbon accounting: a way of measuring how much greenhouse gas an organization emits.

Who has to get to net zero?

Net-zero targets are set by both countries and organizations. In practice, the net-zero targets set by countries can only be achieved by bringing the businesses within those countries to net zero.

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