Top Questions & Answers To Understand Net Zero

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In 2019 the UK government joined 5 other countries with a commitment to hit Net Zero emissions by 2050. By the end of 2020 65 countries, regions and cities had made the same pledge[1] and now over 70% of world economies are covered by some form of Net Zero target.

However, what does “Net Zero” actually mean? In this article we’ll explain Net Zero and, most importantly, how an individual can actually achieve it.

What is Net Zero?

Every year over 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. As a result, temperatures are rising, extreme weather events are becoming more common and huge swathes of the animal population are at risk.

The only way to stop this is by cutting the amount of carbon emitted and finding ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere that’s already there.

Net Zero describes exactly this situation. It can be defined as the point at which, in a given time period, the amount of greenhouses gases emitted by human activity are cancelled out by removing the same amount from the atmosphere.

The overall effect on the planet is therefore that there are no additions to the total amount of greenhouse gases.

Are we close to Net Zero?

Unfortunately, we’re currently a long way from being Net Zero. Emissions have been growing at 1.5% every year for the last 10 years and were over 57 billion tonnes in 2019[2].

When do we need to hit Net Zero?

As soon as possible but certainly no later than 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5C according to the UN[3]. Moreover, the fastest cuts need to happen this decade as we need to cut emissions 45% by 2030 to avoid the accelerating effects of climate change.

To put this in perspective the expected falls in global emissions due to lockdowns related to the COVID pandemic are about the same that we need to achieve every year from now until 2030[4].

Why not go Zero rather than “Net” Zero?

Zero carbon emissions are best but, in some sectors, it probably will not be possible even by 2050. As a result carbon needs to be removed to account for these hard to cut areas.

The airline sector is a good example where emissions are expected to quadruple by 2050 as the demand for air travel continues to increase. Even with technology improvements to planes, sustainable fuels and a focus on other carbon saving ideas such as better taxiing and direct routing this means that aviation and shipping could take up 100% of the allowable emissions by 2050[5]!

So given that aviation cannot get to Zero those emission need to be removed in order to make sure that the overall level of greenhouses gases stops going up.

Why is Net Zero so important?

The world is now around 1C warmer than 150 years ago and the effects of climate change are accelerating. However, if warming continues to 2C, or even 3C, then the changes will occur at a faster and faster rate from extreme weather events to rising sea levels and greater threats to wildlife.

For example at 1.5C of warming 14% of the world’s population are exposed to severe heat but at 2C it jumps to 37%. Also at 2C coral reefs decline by 99% and the Artic is free of sea ice every 10 years, 10 times more than at 1.5C[3].

Is Net Zero the same as Carbon Neutral?

Net Zero and Carbon Neutral are very similar concepts. However, for Net Zero the removal needs to be direct e.g. via nature based solutions or through direct air capture. However, in order to achieve carbon neutrality there is also the ability to use offsets where funding is provided to projects which can show that they are leading to reduce overall emissions.

Is Net Zero emissions possible for an individual?

Yes, and based on choices and technologies that are available today. We’ve mapped this out in our report “Reduce, Replace, Repair – a practical pathway for individuals to reach Net Zero”.

For example the average UK carbon footprint is 9 tonnes which needs to be 2.5 tonnes by 2030 and Net Zero as soon as possible after that.

With Reduce and Replace steps an individual can get to around 3 tonnes and then with nature based solutions they can get to Net Zero. It will take time, and it will take effort, but it is possible.

How can you reach Net Zero?

Individuals have a crucial role to play in ensuring we reach Net Zero by 2050, but ideally much, much sooner, as they account for 70% of all emissions. You can build a personalised plan to reach Net Zero using Giki Zero using these ideas and many more:

  • Make swaps to the food you eat: Try eating animal products once a day or even moving to a Plant Based diet. Going organic is also better for wildlife and soil quality.
  • Cut back on purchases: Try to avoid any new clothes for 3 months and take old clothes to the charity shop. For an easy start why not switch to a shampoo bar and save some plastic at the same time.
  • Think about the services you use too: don’t invest your ISA in fossil fuel companies and ask your pension provider to commit to being Net Zero.

What are the options for removing carbon to get to Net Zero?

There are two main ways we can remove carbon from the atmosphere:

  •  Nature based solutions. There is almost no technology that’s better at removing carbon from the atmosphere than a tree. Tree planting, forest protection and the restoration of other natural environments that sequester carbon, such as peat bogs and mangrove swamps, are therefore all good ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. There is also huge scope for restoring the quality of soils around the world which have been depleted by intensive farming and excess chemical fertiliser use.
  • Less proven are human technologies to remove carbon. One of the most promising is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. The process is to grow plants which can then be burned to generate energy and the carbon dioxide from the burning is captured and stored. However, there are constraints due to the amount of land needed to grow the “fuel” and carbon capture and storage is still developing. Direct air capture (DAC) is also much discussed but it remains expensive and unproven.

What are the biggest challenges in achieving Net Zero?

The task ahead is enormous. Governments need to set strong, pro-environmental policies and support the infrastructure that’s needed to help people live, travel and eat with minimal emissions. Companies need to reach Net Zero in their own emissions as well as provide products and services to consumers that do the same. Individuals need to embrace changes to their lifestyle, which may also be good for their wallet and their health, but which sometimes will require an investment of time and money.

However, the good news is that we know what to do. The challenge is that we need a global, coordinated, continuous effort to do it.

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3 IPCC Special Report

5 UN emissions gap report