What does net zero mean and is it even possible to reach it?

August 2, 2022

Eliza Borbély



The phrase net zero has gone viral, but what does it really mean? And is it even possible to achieve it? 

The carbon cycle describes how the carbon moves between the atmosphere, soils, ocean and living creatures. Until human intervention came into the picture, the system had always been able to balance itself out naturally. The burning of fossil fuels has resulted in the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the air, which is warming our planet.

Businesses, brands and governments promised to commit to net zero to stop the warming below 2 degrees, but in the world of capitalism, it’s easier said than done. For some industries such as aviation or manufacturing, it is not as easy as it sounds to stop emitting these gasses. And climate change is a dilemma of catch-22, causing a chain reaction that results in even more climate change. 

Net zero is the only way to a sustainable future, we have to stop the increase of greenhouse gasses. The sources of emissions need to be transformed by building more energy-efficient homes, farming differently and investing in renewable energy.

In 2009 at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference scientists realized that we cannot cut emissions fast enough. We need to remove the emissions from the air, the carbon in the atmosphere will not return to pre-industrial levels. The greenhouse-gas emissions and removals have to balance each other out, creating an overall effect of net zero. The countries that signed the Paris Agreement concurred to reach this balance.

It is estimated that our oceans absorb 40% of carbon dioxide emissions, but as temperatures change, so will the ability of our carbon sinks. We can add to them by restoring forests, improving carbon storage in soils and farming more coral reefs. 

The complicated part is to take emissions out of the air. This is known as negative emission and that’s why net-zero targets are hard to achieve. Many governments want to go slowly on cutting emissions and take the risk that innovation may catch up, so they can do it cheaper and better without having a huge impact on profit, but to count on the technology that has not yet been proven to scale is a gamble. The amount of greenhouse gasses that need to be removed from the atmosphere will depend on how much emissions can be cut. It may come too late and it may give permission for polluters to get away with polluting much more than necessary. Getting to net zero will require tremendous rapid change, and the transition will create opportunities to build new businesses.

But how do we divide responsibility? Countries, companies and individuals do not want to own up to their carbon footprint. India or China are producing enormous amounts of emissions today, but they point out the fact that the goods they produce are mostly consumed by Americans or Europeans. There is no universal policy for accounting for the attributing emissions. The global north has emitted 92% of carbon dioxide while Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East have emitted just 8%. The world’s richest 1% emits more than the poorest 50%. And 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. 

There is a race to reach net zero, it is a vital step toward managing climate change. America and the EU are working towards a target of net zero by 2050. China has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, but the target is no guarantee that we’re going to get to the goal.

Market researchers can help to track the changes needed in the industries to achieve net zero. Professionals agree that climate change is an urgent issue, but often find taking action too expensive and not a priority. McKinsey research suggests that in Europe just 15 technologies could drive 70 percent of the emissions reduction required to reach net zero. Start-ups are often the first ones to adapt and become climate-tech businesses by using renewable energy or electric vehicles. They are often equipped with a higher tolerance for risk-taking and the ability to operate faster.. But established companies can break into the business as well by developing, and broadening support from governments could enable the next wave of green businesses to grow quicker. 

Before, scaling sustainable technologies has been done step-by-step to manage both the technological and commercial risks involved. It takes time to validate a new climate technology on a demonstration scale while also figuring out industrial-scale installations. But every action counts when it comes to fighting climate change. 

Measuring the corporate carbon footprint is the first step to realize how much the business contributes to global warming. The carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases generated by the company’s actions taking into consideration the entire life cycle of the products.

High-quality carbon offset projects not only protect the environment but engage people and stimulate local development by focusing on nature-based solutions. Being authentic and transparent and communicating climate commitments to customers and stakeholders are the key. Consumers change their purchase preferences due to sustainability concerns and marketers have the power to change people’s behaviour at the scale needed. They need to present the new technology making people perceive it as a value. As the economy becomes decarbonized, the world will potentially spend millions on building new systems and products that allow people to change their lifestyles smoothly.

The net-zero transition will last for decades and will impact every part of the economy, the time is now to start it. Consumers vote with their wallets, purchasing low-carbon products accelerates the development, because public support for green energy efforts speeds up political decision-making.

Many of the decisions that consumers, businesses and policymakers make now will stay with us for years. And the development of new technologies takes time, as does building up and scaling new supply chains. Success will depend on everyone taking action.

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