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Oli Guei
Oli Guei

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What is Net Zero?

Companies like Facebook and recording artists like Billie Eilish have promised to make changes to bring their greenhouse-gas emissions closer to net zero. The race to zero is a vital step towards managing climate change. But what does net zero really mean and is achieving it even possible?

Humans burning fossil fuels has resulted in more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is warming the planet. To stop the warming the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has to stop rising. The obvious way to do that is to stop emitting them. But that easier said than done. For some industries such as aviation and manufacturing eliminating emissions is really hard. In the years leading up to the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, scientists realised something. It wasn’t possible to cut emissions fast and thoroughly enough to meet the temperature targets that policymakers wanted. What was needed was to actively remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere too. People began to talk about a world in which greenhouse-gas emissions and greenhouse-gas removals balanced each other out. So that the overall effect was net zero.

The countries that signed up to the Paris Agreement pledged to turn this idea into reality by agreeing to balance their emissions and removal of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century.

Meeting the net zero target requires two things. The first thing is to cut our greenhouse gas emissions and the second is to remove emissions from the atmosphere. The removal part is the hardest and sometimes more obscure aspect of reaching net zero.

At the moment we have different ways to remove CO2 from the air. Trees capture carbon from the air naturally but to achieve our ambitious targets, we need man-made solutions.

With the new carbon capture technologies we can capture carbon dioxide and store it underground. But we don't know if this can work at the scale required to meet our targets. The world is counting on these innovations and that's a risky bet.

Who's responsible for each molecule of greenhouse gas?

A lot of countries and companies don’t want to own up to their carbon footprint. For example, carbon-intensive countries like India, China or other emerging markets that are producing enormous amounts of emissions today. They point out that the goods they produce, for example may be consumed by Americans and Europeans. So they should do the negative emissions to they may say rich countries got rich putting carbon dioxide into the air. Now it’s our turn to lift our people out of poverty so you pay for the negative emissions.

As yet there is no universal policy for accounting for and attributing emissions. Today governmental net-zero pledges cover over two-third of the global economy. America and the EU are working towards a target of net zero by 2050. President Xi of China, the world’s largest emitter has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

Let me know what you think about the net zero targets in the comments below.

Discussion (4)

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yves profile image
Yves Gaston

Nice read @oli . I think expecting China and India to cut back on carbon pollution and take more responsibility for carbon removal is going to be a big ask. They have every right to complain that they were not responsible for the earlier pollution during the industrial revolution.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

I am very skeptical of net zero targets when it is not the company's technology or approach itself which is changing. Not to say this is a perfectly informed position, just how I feel...

For example:

  • Airline "net zero" targets: Very suspicious. The main thing they do is spew exhaust into the sky. I am just suspicious about the net good that anything they can do from this approach.
  • A tech company getting into renewable energy production for the purpose of ensuring their data centers are clean: This is much better to me, it strikes me as less of a "technical victory" as much as a genuine improvement that hopefully keeps going.
  • Something like Amazon actually investing in and ordering electric trucks is good. Not that it makes an organization like that good overall, but I prefer the idea of them investing in cleaner tech vs just buying offsets.

Will air travel ever get truly "clean"? I'm not sure, but as a technical person I hope that in a decade autonomous electric vehicles help eat away at air travel by making regional travel cheaper, cleaner and generally more appealing. Basically: If the USA is not going to make clean/fast train travel a thing any time soon, at least there is the possibility that bus and car travel is cleaner and easier. A family of five is more excited about loading into their EV with assistive driving and/or full autonomy to take 8 hour drives instead of driving 30 minutes to the airport, spending 90 going through security and boarding, 2 hours in flight each way.

I tend to view a lot of this through the lens of technology and market dynamics, which is hardly going to get us everywhere we need to go in fighting climate change, but it is a domain I feel comfortable advocating from a bit of domain knowledge in some of this, vs policy changes which I feel I have a harder time wrapping my head around.

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oli profile image
Oli Guei Author

Will air travel ever get truly "clean"?
Yes, it can to a degree.
No industry can ever become truly clean in my opinion - almost everything will have a carbon footprint in some way or form. But I’m optimistic that we can improve on the processes we have today in order to reduce carbon emissions every sector.

This is highly fanciful but imagine a world where solar powered jumbo jets are the norm. Airlines will have a lower carbon footprint compared to many other industries.

I’m a big advocate of EVs but unfortunately our human desire to get there quickly means that more and more people will opt to fly to even regional destinations rather than drive in an EV.

I still don’t understand why high speed trains haven’t taken off in the US. A former colleague of mine told me it’s because the automotive industry has a powerful lobby.

Anyways, thank you for sharing your opinions @ben

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oli profile image
Oli Guei Author

Today is day one of the COP26 summit in Glasgow so I thought I’d share this post with you.