What does net zero mean?
Want to hear the truth about net zero? Let’s start with the basics.
Net zero means achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced and the amount of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere. Net zero is often compared to a set of weighing scales. On one side: you have the output of planet-warming gases, and on the other: the absorption of those gases. In a successful net zero scenario, they will “weigh” exactly the same, so the net output of emissions will be zero.
Over the past decade or so, net zero has become a buzzword for politicians and countries making apparent commitments to the environment. 124 countries have pledged to be net zero by 2050, and many corporations have followed suit. But is it enough?
The concept of net zero has come under fire from critics. It can sometimes be used as a greenwashing tactic, or to delay deeper climate actions. In this journal entry we explain why net zero is important, how net zero can be achieved, and also unpack some of the chief criticisms. After all, a little scepticism is only healthy!
How does net zero relate to Climate Change?
Climate Change means any kind of change in weather patterns and global temperatures. This can be caused by solar events, but also from human activity like the burning of fossil fuels. Climate Change as we know it is human-caused. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, global temperatures have risen by 1 degree. Scientists agree that to avoid huge environmental disasters, temperatures need to stay within 1.5 degrees.
The principal drivers of climate change are greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, which “act as a blanket” around the earth, trapping heat and dialling up the temperature. There are now more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than there have been in the past 2 million years! This terrifying fact is what makes net zero an important part of any effort to limit warming.
If humanity can collectively “remove” as much GHGs as we produce and hit net zero we’ll be helping to restore the planet’s natural balance.
How can we reach net zero?
While corporations can get creative with the meaning of net zero there are really three key steps to a good net zero policy.
Calculate. Reduce. Compensate.
Calculate. An ongoing effort on behalf of the company or the country to have accurate data on the amount of GHGs they produce. Every time this figure rises, it’ll need to be addressed by the other steps. A company's footprint is usually measured as CO2 equivalent, which means: all GHG emissions produced, not just CO2.
Reduce. Net zero is not an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels and emitting the same amount of carbon dioxide. Rather, it should be the polar opposite: a call to reduce overall emissions as much as possible. At a company level, this can be done through switching to clean energy sources, reducing transport mileage, and reducing the amount of surplus stock (the list goes on). At an international level, each country has a different net zero strategy.
Compensate. Even though reduction is a critical step, it’s currently impossible to run any kind of business without producing emissions. What’s left over are called “residual emissions”. Net zero therefore usually involves investments in carbon compensation projects to remove the “residue”. More on that below.
And repeat! This activity should be done on an annual basis to maintain net zero status.
What is carbon compensation?
Carbon compensation is a way of cancelling out residual emissions. It attempts to remove the same amount of carbon dioxide as that which has been emitted. As it is usually a monetary investment, it could be thought of as compensating the environment for the damage caused by emissions.
This project involves protecting 65,000 hectares of tropical peat forest in the Indonesian jungle. It prevents deforestation, and involves the planting of 200,000 mangroves: highly efficient absorbers of CO2. By supporting it, we offset our emissions and reach net zero.
Is net zero enough?
Not really. When done properly and with immediacy, we view net zero as the beginning of sustainability, not the end. Eventually, we all need to aim for real zero, where we stop putting emissions into the atmosphere. This would mean an end to the burning of fossil fuels.
Net Zero also has another shortcoming. Net zero pledges can be used as a way for companies and countries to continue “business as usual” - even increasing their use of fossil fuels and their production of waste - with the excuse that it will be resolved at a later date. The real legwork needs to happen now, not in 20-30 years time. As one expert at COP26 told Sierra: “right now, the net-zero targets are a good vision, but they have to be backed by short-term action; otherwise they are simply not credible.”
When it’s used in the wrong way, net zero can be a climate problem rather than a solution.
The difference between net zero, carbon neutral and climate neutral
Net zero means achieving a balance between the amount of GHGs emitted and the amount offset. Carbon Neutral is essentially the same, except for one key difference: it means an entity has reached net zero carbon emissions but may not account for all the other greenhouse gases produced.
Climate Neutral is our preferred terminology as it reflects what we have truly done: reduced and compensated all of the greenhouse gases involved in the production and transport of our clothing.
TWOTHIRDS makes sustainable clothing that is Climate Neutral. The brand itself has been Climate Neutral since 2021.