What is Net Zero: A Guide to Climate Action

net zero australia

You’ve probably heard a lot of chat about “net zero,” and, in the run up to the big international climate summit in Glasgow in November, you’re likely going to be hearing a whole lot more about it.

While more and more Australians are becoming aware of the term, not everyone is certain as to what exactly it means.

So, net zero is both a target and a driver of climate action. Put simply, the phrase refers to greenhouse gas emissions and achieving a level where no new emissions are created. It’s essential that as many countries as possible, particularly the large emittors, reach a level where they are creating no more emissions as soon as possible in order to halt the rise of global warming.

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that, but ‘getting to net zero’ is pretty much a way of saying ‘getting to a point where we’re no longer warming the planet’.

Here’s everything you need to know about net zero.

What Does it Mean to Get to Net Zero?

In the words of the Energy Minister Angus Taylor, “Zero is not zero.”

“Some in this debate think net zero means zero. It doesn’t,” he told an energy and climate summit on Monday.

Like a stopped clock, he’s not entirely wrong. Zero doesn’t mean zero because carbon emissions are not a one-way street.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines net zero as “when anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period”.

What they’re talking about is the fact that the planet also absorbs carbon dioxide. Plants and forests absorb carbon dioxide, as does the ocean, which takes in around 25% of humanities output.

Getting to net zero means achieving a balance with the planet whereby the net sum of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn’t rising, thereby stopping the warming of the planet.

Of course, as the IPCC report explained, we’ve kind of already tipped the scales into the red too far and the planet is already too hot. Australia, as an outlier, has warmed by an average of 1.4 degrees Celsius and that’s caused a devastating die-off of the Great Barrier Reef, constant droughts, and apocalyptic bushfires.

Carbon dioxide doesn’t affect the planet immediately, with some studies suggesting that it could linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, continuing to heat the planet.

That’s why net zero is just one target, but that ‘net negative’ is probably going to have to be the next one.

How to Achieve Net Zero Emissions

Achieving net zero is easier said than done. Essentially, you just need to stop the output of carbon emissions and you’re done.

Unfortunately, almost every aspect of modern life is tied up in the emission of carbon dioxide, whether that’s for energy use, transport, manufacture, or agriculture.

So, stopping all carbon emissions isn’t really a viable option. Instead, you need to replace these sources of emissions with non-emitting alternatives. Doing so will require a fundamental transformation of global infrastructure, industrial systems, and our approach to land and our relationship with the planet.

While it sounds like a challenge, we’ve only got a few years to do so. Scientists agree that we need to keep global emissions below 1.5 degrees if we are to avoid a catastrophic collapse of our ecosystems and the planet we live upon. Anything beyond 2 degrees will mean a future that is very much unlike our present, and not in a good way.

In order to do so, we need to cut global emissions by around 50% by 2030, and achieve net zero by 2050 at the latest. These figures are given as last resort deadlines, but the sooner we can get there, the less our impact will be upon the planet.

That means a transition away from fossil fuels including coal, gas, and oil, as soon as possible, and greater investment in green energy. Not all countries need to share the burden of carbon reduction equally, as only three regions make up nearly 50% of the worlds carbon output. Australia, with high emissions and a high capacity to reduce emissions, needs to reduce it’s carbon output by 75% by 2030, according to The Climate Council, if it is to help the world achieve these necessary goals.

While it’s expensive in the short term, the approach is basically just an investment in the future. Green jobs can easily replace those in the fossil fuel industries while creating vast amounts of wealth to counter the lost revenue from selling non-renewable energy sources.

What’s Wrong With Net Zero

There are a few key issues with the target, one of them being the above-mentioned issue that it doesn’t go far enough, quickly enough, to limit the heating that is already taking place on Earth.

The other is that net zero as a concept is largely rhetoric. While the UN notes that 130 countries have already either committed or are considering committing to the required net zero timelines, few have put in place any concrete plans on how to achieve it.

Net zero is not something that can be brought about overnight and will take years of work and investment to achieve. That’s why most of the work needs to be done now, if not sooner.

Another of the key issues is that net zero calculations are based upon the idea that carbon will be stored in natural sources like forests and the oceans. That only works of course if those forests remain standing and the oceans healthy enough to absorb carbon. This is why deforestation is such a bad idea as it not only reduces the capacity for the planet to absorb carbon, it actually releases the carbon that is stored in those trees.

There are also nightmare scenarios that have already been identified by scientists that show that a warming and increasingly acidic ocean is losing the ability to absorb carbon and if that happens on a global scale, it’s game over.

Net zero as a target is only useful if there are policies in place, supported by genuine action, to achieve it. While all of Australia’s states and territories have net zero targets, most governments are yet to show how they will be met.

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