Net-Zero: Trend Or Necessity? (Part 1)

Published on:
by Aaroshi Rathor
Image of planted green wall in shape of a zero

The effects of climate change have been disastrous on every continent. Rising sea levels, global temperature rise, and the finger of blame pointing at burning fossil fuels, methane emissions, industrial processes, poor urban planning, population growth... the list goes on. What is clear is that, measurably, since the Industrial Revolution our emissions growth has been going up, almost exponentially now, and our total greenhouse gas emissions today need to come down. 

Emissions reductions strategies must be systemically applied, and in tandem with the need for controlled economic growth in both developing countries as well as rich countries. 

Net-Zero Emissions

The rate at which climate change is occurring and global emissions increasing has prompted businesses and governments alike to implement net-zero, essentially a roadmap to both significantly strengthen the measurement of mainly carbon dioxide emissions, and to reduce the emissions generated by commercial and national activities.  

Many people now believe that organisations are serious about achieving net-zero targets, that we can fundamentally end our addiction of fossil fuel combustion. We can 'reach net'. However, a culture of climate misinformation and confusion is fostered by this sudden global level of enthusiasm in announcing net-zero goals, which is confusing consumers, investors, and regulators with false narratives. 

Are businesses committed to achieving climate targets or is this just more greenwashing, and is net-zero just a fashionable fad that businesses adopt under the guise of environmental sustainability, or is it a genuine phenomenon intended to address real climate causes? 

What Do We Mean By Net-Zero? 

As per the University of Oxford definition, net-zero is the internationally agreed-upon objective for limit warming in the second half of this century. According to the IPCC, we must achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 to stay under 1.5°C of warming. Net-zero refers to reducing total emissions, all other greenhouse gases, including those of methane, nitrous oxide emissions, as well as hydrofluorocarbons, to as close to zero as feasible, with any leftover emissions being reabsorbed via natural sinks, for example the atmosphere, seas, and forests. 

Net-zero has a broad range of applications for several industries. The term ‘scope of net zero’ describes both the activities that fall within its purview as well as the greenhouse gases that are included. Most national and sub-national actors have a standardised method for defining net zero's activity coverage. This adheres to the IPCC's recommendations for creating spatially constrained national inventories of greenhouse gases (emissions that occur within a given territory). 

Greenhouse Gases: Scopes

There are basically three types of greenhouse gas emission scopes:

  • Scope 1 are direct emissions produced at the source that is owned or controlled by a company. Simply put, scope 1 emissions are those that are emitted into the atmosphere as a direct result of a series of firm-level actions. Scope 1 must encompass every fuel that emits GHGs. 

  • Scope 2 deals with emissions related to the production of energy consumed by a company. Scope 2 emissions include those from the use of purchased power, steam, heat, and cooling that are all emitted into the atmosphere. Electricity will be the only source of scope 2 emissions for the majority of enterprises.

  • Scope 3 addresses indirect emissions related to business activities from sources not owned or under the control of a corporation. Scope 3 emissions are essentially indirect and not under a company's ownership or control. This includes everything from the goods and services a business purchases to the investments it makes to the applications of the goods it sells. Scope 3 emissions are crucial because they enable businesses to identify the emission hotspots in their value chain, highlighting any risks and operational inefficiencies.

Net-Zero And Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In essence, the Paris Agreement calls for countries to work together to tackle climate change by limiting the rise in global temperature this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing efforts to further restrict the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Global net emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from human activities must decrease by around 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 in order to avert the worst climate effects, with net emissions reaching zero around 2050. In other words, carbon emissions must be cut to the barest minimum in order to stop the destruction of the environment caused by global warming. 

Countries and businesses have established net-zero commitments, net-zero pledges, and net-zero roadmaps to partially reverse the effects of climate change. According to Science Based Target Initiatives ( SBTIs), more than 3,000 companies and financial institutions are lowering their emissions. In addition, more than 400 financial organisations, over 1000 educational institutions, and over 1000 towns have signed on to the Race to Zero, promising to take strict, immediate action to cut global emissions in half by 2030. 

The Status Of Net-Zero 2050 Goals

Many organisations, nations, and governments have made it a priority to advance net-zero objectives to achieve zero emissions by 2050, but these goals are still far off from being achieved. According to a United Nations report, building energy efficiency investments climbed by 16% to USD 237 billion in 2021, although floor space growth exceeded efficiency measures. The sector's overall energy use and CO2 emissions actually rose above  pre-pandemic levels in 2021. 

So, what will it take to wean ourselves off the fossil fuel habit? Read more in Part 2.

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