There are lots of key words when it comes to climate change, and one of the phrases you might have heard a lot recently is ‘net zero’. For example, in 2021 the government committed to reaching ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050, but what exactly does that mean?  

What is net zero?  

power station

The term ‘net zero’ means balancing out the amount of greenhouse gases being released by removing an equal amount from the atmosphere. For example, carbon can be removed through nature-based solutions such as restoring environments that store carbon dioxide like forests and wetlands. Greenhouse gases could also be removed through technological solutions still being developed, such as capturing carbon released by energy generation or industrial processes and storing it deep underground.  

Why is net zero important?  

To limit global heating to 1.5 degrees in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, we need to rapidly reduce the amount of new greenhouse gases emissions, as well as reduce the amount already in the atmosphere. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that if warming is not limited, extreme weather events like those we’ve seen in recent years will continue to get worse and more frequent.   

For net zero to be effective it needs to be permanent, ensuring that gases removed don’t go back into the atmosphere. The way the government plans to achieve this is by ending coal power generation, halting deforestation and phasing out petrol and diesel cars. They have also announced a switch to cleaner heating, with no new gas boilers being sold after 2035 and grants of up to £7,500 for installing a heat pump as part of the Boiler Upgrade Scheme. But as a recent court case brought by Good Energy partner Friends of the Earth showed, the UK government’s policies currently don’t go far enough to achieve their net zero commitment.   

What are some of the criticisms of net zero?  

There are some issues with the concept of net zero, as it’s often viewed as not going far enough. The idea is to reduce emissions as far as possible and offset the rest. However, this could mean governments and businesses attempting to carry on with business as usual while trying to offset emissions elsewhere, in a way that isn’t sustainable or equitable for everyone – especially people in countries that are not contributing to the climate crisis. 

For example, some corporations focus their efforts on offsetting policies rather than reducing their emissions, which can lead to inaccurate carbon reporting. Airlines offer passengers the option to make their flight “carbon neutral” for a small fee which goes towards green initiatives around the world. Greenpeace ran an investigation into these offsetting schemes, and found that a couple of airlines were supporting projects to save forests that aren’t considered to be under threat. They also found that one of EasyJet’s forest protection offsetting schemes is run by a logging company known for targeting endangered trees. 

Ideally, solutions for balancing carbon emissions will be paired with rapid, transformative action to prevent new greenhouse gas emissions as far as possible. If everything that can be done to stop emitting greenhouse gases is done, then offsetting could be used to neutralise any emissions that can’t be avoided.  

What is the difference between net zero and zero carbon?  

Zero carbon means not releasing any new carbon emissions, rather than offsetting any emissions released, as we set out in our report Renewable Nation: Pathways to a Zero carbon Britain

Net zero is also not the same as carbon neutral. Carbon neutral refers specifically to balancing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, whereas net zero includes all greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxides and methane.  

What can you do to support the transition to net zero?  

Some things you can do to reduce your own emissions include: 

  • Switch to an electric vehicle or reduce your travel by car. 
  • Reduce the amount you travel by air.  
  • Power your home using renewable energy. 

For more information about how you can cut your emissions and reduce your carbon footprint, read our recent blog post

Our journey to net zero  

As part of our commitment to sustainability and reducing emissions, we signed up to the Science Based Targets initiative. Our target is to reduce emissions across all scopes by 50% (compared to 2018) by 2030.  

Emissions are measured in three scopes: 

  • Scope 1: Direct emissions 
  • Scope 2: Indirect emissions from energy usage 
  • Scope 3: Indirect emissions from activities like travel 

So far, we’ve moved to a smaller office and committed to a hybrid working model, reducing our emissions from commuting.  

Find out more on our sustainability page