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What is carbon neutrality and how can it be achieved?

Climate change is already affecting the entire world, with extreme weather conditions becoming more frequent, as recently seen in Europe. In order to limit global warming and avoid its worst consequences, carbon neutrality by the mid-21st century is essential. But what exactly is carbon neutrality and how can it be achieved? Let’s have a look. 

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

From driving to powering our home, most things we do daily produce greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2). This makes up our carbon footprint. Being “carbon neutral” means that you, your company, or your national economy emits the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere as what you offset by other means. Think of it like having a budget, but the budget is carbon dioxide: you shouldn’t overspend it.

On an individual level, this can be done using more renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, switching to an electric vehicle, or changing your diet to eat less meat, among many other things. If you are a country, it gets a bit trickier because your inputs and outputs are more complex. Still, the first step is knowing your carbon footprint. This can be done with any of the carbon footprint calculators out there.

Being carbon neutral then means that your carbon dioxide output has a net neutral impact on the environment and helps to stem the effects of climate change. Greenhouse gases increase average temperatures worldwide, which in turn contributes to sea-level rise, droughts, and overall changing weather patterns. 

Global average temperature has already increased over 1ºC compared to pre-industrial times and we are largely to blame. Carbon dioxide comprises about two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions – and that’s caused mainly by burning natural gas, coal, and other fossil fuels. We have to pursue carbon neutrality and we have to do it now. 

What does it mean to be carbon neutral?

The IPCC, a global body of climate experts, says carbon neutrality is achieved when greenhouse gas emissions by human activities are equal to those removed from the atmosphere within a certain period of time. This is why we frequently use the terms “net zero” and “zeroing net emissions,” which essentially refer to the same thing.

“Every country, city, financial institution and company must adopt plans to zero emissions by 2050. And start putting them into practice now, also providing clear short-term goals,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stated at a climate summit last year. “Technology is on our side. Sound economic analyses are our allies.”

All human activities have a certain carbon footprint, an amount of emissions that is directly or indirectly associated with them. However, not every greenhouse gas has the same influence on the climate, depending on its concentration, presence in the atmosphere, and “power”. That’s why it’s important to calculate the carbon footprint. 

Earth has two massive natural reservoirs of greenhouse gases: forests and oceans. Of the approximately 40 billion tons of CO2 deriving from human activities in 2020, these reservoirs absorbed about 54%. Preserving them is vital to be carbon neutral. If we continue clearing out forests the way we do it will get trickier to achieve that goal.

What are the key steps to becoming carbon neutral?

Whether you are an individual, a company, or a government, there are three basic things that are required for net emissions to be zeroed: measurement, reduction, and offsetting.

  • Measurement. It begins by mapping all greenhouse gas emissions related to products and processes. To do so, a study called the life cycle analysis is carried out which considers all phases, from extraction of raw materials to their use and disposal. This includes emissions directly by you, emissions related to the energy supply, and emissions from indirect activities related to you.
  • Reduction. Now that you know where your emissions come from, it’s time to take action. If an organization discovers that a significant part of a product’s impact comes from packaging, it can replace it with a more sustainable alternative. If raw materials are purchased abroad, they can be sourced from local suppliers. A common strategy is to use renewable energy, installing your own plants to produce it or buying it from others.
  • Offsetting. There will likely be an amount of emissions that will be impossible to eliminate entirely. Here’s when offsetting comes in. You can invest in a project that reduces global carbon emissions (just not your own emissions). When you do so, you are buying carbon credits – each one equivalent to one metric ton of CO2. Some examples of carbon offset projects include planting trees, wetlands restoration and farmland management.

How fast do we need to become carbon neutral?

When they signed the Paris Agreement, governments pledged to limit the rise of global temperatures below 2ºC compared to pre-industrial levels, and to do everything possible to stay within a 1.5ºC rise. To do so, we can only emit a certain amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. This threshold is known as the carbon budget.

While there is some progress, we are not on track for 2ºC at the moment — let alone 1.5ºC. To get a sense of how far we’re lagging behind, in 2020, the pandemic caused greenhouse gas emissions to drop 7% compared to the previous year — and that’s with all the lockdowns and everything. We have to cut emissions by a further 7.6% each year for the entire decade 2020-2030 to limit global warming, according to the UN Environment Program. 

If the world reaches net-zero emissions by 2040, the chance of limiting warming to 1.5ºC is considerably higher, according to the IPCC. The sooner emissions peak, and the lower they are at that point, the more realistic achieving net zero becomes. This would also create less reliance on carbon removal in the second half of the century.

This doesn’t mean all countries and organizations have to be carbon neutral at the same time. The chances of limiting warming to 1.5ºC depend significantly on how soon the highest emitters reach net-zero emissions. Equity considerations are also considered, such as responsibility for past emissions and actual capacity to act. 

When joining the Paris Agreement, countries have pledged to each contribute to this massive challenge. These commitments have taken the form of what are known as Nationally Determined Contribution (NDCs), where governments outline their emission reduction strategies. However, these NDCs are far from being ambitious enough yet. 

As well as having their NDCs, governments also have to develop strategies that set out long-term goals for climate and development, directing short-term decision-making to support the necessary shifts to limit global warming. Ambitious long-term strategies are vital as they provide a pathway to a societal transformation and a link with NDCs.

“It is extremely important that we become carbon neutral to combat the climate crisis. The longer we allow more CO2 emissions to collect in the atmosphere, the more intense and frequent droughts, floods, forest fires, and other natural disasters we will experience in the future. But in order to protect ourselves from the worst effects of climate change, we need to stay below 1.5ºC of global warming,” Evvan Morton, science fellow at Rutgers University, told ZME Science.

How to become carbon negative?

It may sound overwhelming, but policy, technology, and behavior have to shift across the board in order for societies to be carbon neutral. But wait, there’s good news. Most of the necessary technologies for carbon neutrality are already available and are getting increasingly cost-competitive with the polluting alternatives now being used.  

Changing dietary choices, stopping deforestation, restoring degraded lands and reducing food loss and waste have significant potential to reduce emissions, as seen in the graph below by the World Resources Institute (WRI). Renewables will also be a critical element as well as energy efficiency and fuel-switching measures for transportation. 

Investments in carbon removal are also crucial. All the pathways assessed by the IPCC to achieve the 1.5ºC target rely on carbon removal to some extent. Removing CO2 from the atmosphere will compensate for emissions from sectors in which reaching net-zero emissions is more difficult. 

Having said this, it’s also important to be aware of some skeptical voices regarding carbon neutrality targets. The “net” aspect of net-zero targets could create an overreliance on carbon dioxide removal, instead of actually reducing emissions in the near-term. Instead, decision-makers should set absolute reduction targets that don’t rely on removals. 

Experts and campaigners have also questioned the time horizon for carbon neutrality targets, typically 2050, which feels kind of distant. Instead, they have suggested for decision-makers to set near- and mid-term milestones for their path to carbon neutrality, including ambitious climate targets as part of their NDCs to be achieved during the current decade.  

South Korea’s newly elected parliament pledges net-zero carbon future

South Korea has just joined the small group of countries moving towards a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Credit Flickr

Amid a wave of support towards its strong actions on the coronavirus, the ruling Democratic Party won the parliamentary elections with an absolute majority. It obtained 180 of the 300 seats, giving president Moon Jae-in the green light to go ahead with his climate plan.

The president, with two remaining years in office, pledged South Korea will become the first country in East Asia to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

Like many others, South Korea signed the Paris Agreement and committed to creating a long-term decarbonization strategy. But few have actually taken solid steps to achieve this goal.

At the moment, only a reduced number of countries have so far committed to that goal. The list includes Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, the European Union, Fiji, Marshall Islands, New Zealand, South Korea, the UK, and Uruguay.

The country’s Democratic Party introduced a climate manifesto in March, claiming its intent to implement a “Green New Deal” in the next few years. The party said it will follow the steps taken by Europe with its “Green Deal for Europe” and the “Green New Deal” planned by Democrats in the US.

The plan is highly ambitious and would lead to a radical transformation of the country’s economy. Through a medium and long-term roadmap, the government plans to boost renewable energy investments, introduce a carbon tax and support a transition to green jobs.

Jessica Yun, of the South Korean advocate group Solutions For Our Climate (SFOC), told Climate Home News she now expected climate change and energy issues to become more prominent within the national political debate.

“It is a positive sign that the ruling Democratic Party has successfully brought in environmental leaders from the coal phase-out and energy transition movement,” she said.

Back in 2016, South Korea presented a climate pledge (known as NDC) and vowed to reduce its emissions by 37% by 2030. Nevertheless, the commitment was questioned as “highly insufficient” by civil society and not in line with the Paris Agreement goals.

The main challenge for the country is its reliance on coal energy, as South Korea is the seventh-largest carbon emitter in the world. Up to 40% of South Korea’s energy matrix is based on coal, with no phase-out date set by the government so far — though that is expected to change in the near future. The country also funds many coal projects abroad, allocating US$1.1 billion for new plants in 2016 and 2017.

The government had already introduced a 15-year plan to increase renewable energy in the country, hoping to expand renewables to 20% by 2030. Nevertheless, the plan means the reduction of gas-fired capacity but not necessarily of coal, which still leaves some unanswered questions about how South Korea will achieve carbon-neutrality. The promises sound good, but for now at least, the country still has a lot to prove

The new climate efforts set by the government are in line with the strong demand by the country’s citizens to be more ambitious. A Pew Research Center study published last year found that 86% of South Koreans viewed climate change as the foremost global threat, far ahead of terrorism or even North Korea’s nuclear program.

What does it mean for New Zealand to become carbon neutral?

A week after the US took the first steps to leave the Paris Agreement, New Zealand passed a bill to drastically cut greenhouse gases by 2050 and achieve carbon neutrality. Nevertheless, the move was questioned by civil society for not being in line with the world’s climate emergency.

Methane from cattle is one of the biggest challenges for New Zealand. Credit Wikipedia Commons

The Zero Carbon Bill was introduced by New Zealand’s Parliament and was passed 119 votes to 1, demonstrating cross-party support to climate protection. This was welcomed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who said legislators have progressed on their climate discussions.

“We have to start moving beyond targets. We have to start moving beyond aspiration. We have to start moving beyond statements of hope and deliver signs of action. That is what this government is doing and proudly so,” Ardern said. “We have made a choice that I am proud of and that will leave a legacy.”

The new law mandates that all greenhouse gases except methane be reduced to “net zero” by 2050. Governments will have to come up with plans to meet “steppingstone” targets on the way there, with the emissions trading scheme as the main enforcement mechanism.

In the case of methane, New Zealand’s goal is to reduce emissions by 10% below 2017 levels by 2030 and then by 24%-47% by 2050. This can be explained by methane being the main source of emissions in the country, accounting for 48% of all of its emissions in 2017.

Being less ambitious on methane means New Zealand could achieve carbon neutrality goals much easier. Compared to other greenhouse gases, methane can be more difficult to deal with. For example, it traps about 30 times as much heat in the atmosphere as CO2 does.

Not considering methane, New Zealand is in line to achieve carbon neutrality in other sectors. Up to 80% of the electricity in the country comes from renewables, a share likely to grow as the country abandons fossil fuels. Plus, the government is moving towards a transition to electric vehicles.

Extinction Rebellion Ōtautahi spokesman Rowan Brook said the 2050 target “doesn’t reflect the fact that we are in an ecological emergency” and asked the government to move the date for 2025. “How can it be 2050 to be zero carbon when the conservative UN gave us 12 years to avoid catastrophe?” he added.

Meanwhile, the local nature advocacy organization Forest & Bird said in a statement that the approval of the bill was an important first step but claimed challenges remain.

“Now we need concrete, urgent, climate action to save our most vulnerable native species and restore native ecosystems,” Chief Executive Kevin Hague said in a statement. “Increased fires, storms, and sea-level rise could push our many endangered species over the edge.”

There is also the issue that “net zero” is not the same as zero. Simply put, this doesn’t mean that New Zealand will have zero carbon emissions, but that all carbon emissions they do produce will be offset by other sustainable practices (most importantly, forestry), in a way that their net impact is zero. While offsets are imperfect and can be quite challenging to implement efficiently, they are still preferable to no action.

This law is drafted in a way that compels future governments to set five-yearly “emissions budgets” that decrease over time until 2050.

With the exception of China, the US and India, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, many countries have made commitments to eliminate carbon emissions. Nevertheless, they are still challenged by scientists and environmentalists for a lack of ambition. This law has also received some criticism for not being ambitious enough — 2050 is a long time away, and climate change is taking its toll right now.

Sweden pledged to eliminate emissions by 2045, while Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany, and the UK, among other European countries, have also set their targets for 2050.

World’s largest container shipping company pledges carbon neutrality by 2050

Despite being one of the most carbon-efficient means of global transport, marine shipping still accounts for 2/3 percent of the global greenhouse emissions. The industry’s big players want to change that.

Credit: Robert Lender (Flickr)

The sector wasn’t included in the Paris Agreement but has set its own goal to cut emissions by 50% by 2050. Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, took the ambition a step further and vowed to be carbon neutral by 2050, sending goods with zero carbon emissions. This will mean developing new technology and compete with companies that aren’t bearing that burden.

The shipping firm now has 750 vessels in operation, some of which are hundreds of meters long. Maersk has already cut emissions substantially, spending US$1 billion so far in efficiency improvements — aiming at the intermediate goal of cutting emissions by 60% by 2030.

“The only possible way to achieve the so-much-needed decarbonisation in our industry is by fully transforming to new carbon neutral fuels and supply chains,” says Søren Toft, Chief Operating Officer at Maersk. “The next 5-10 years are going to be crucial. We will invest significant resources for innovation and fleet technology.”

It may seem like a long time before 2050 hits, but Maersk needs to plan ahead very carefully. Ships are manufactured to last 20 to 30 years, which means ships in service in 2050 will become operational in a few years. New technology will also mean developing a new supply chain to fuel the ships.

Maersk’s plan is based on three pillars: customers, cost reduction and regulations. The company is already working on a carbon-neutral option by using biofuels, selling the option to clients such as H&M. The Swedish clothing firm wants to be carbon neutral by 2040 so reducing its emissions through shipping is one way to go.

As part of its climate-friendly plan, Maersk is also focusing on reducing the amount of money spent on alternatives to fossil fuels. Ships now rely on fuel oil or liquefied natural gas and zero-carbon options like biofuels don’t work yet at the scale needed for container ships

“We want to accelerate the development of solutions of getting there and not just sitting on the fence and waiting for somebody [to do] something,” Ole Graa Jakobsen, Maersk’s head of fleet technology, said

Cleaner technologies that are needed to lower emissions haven’t been invented yet, which makes Maersk’s goals difficult to meet. The company is expecting for technology development to accelerate and to meet its target on a “business-viable” way.

At the same time, Maersk expects there will soon be stricter regulations on shipping emissions such as carbon pricing. If this actually happens, the company will be in a better position than its competitors which have less ambitious environmental targets in place.

But given the current state of affairs regarding climate action regulation, there’s no guarantee that rules on shipping will get tougher. Companies signed a climate agreement under the International Maritime Organization but there’s no system to enforce the commitments, so it’s all in the air so far.

Maersk has so far reduced relative CO2 emissions by 46%, which is about nine percent more than the industry average. There’s still a long way to go until carbon neutrality and achieving it will not only depend on the company but also on factors outside its control. In the meantime, we can only hope that Maersk’s plan will move ahead as planned.

Europe wants to go carbon neutral by 2050. These four countries opposed it

Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Estonia blocked the European Union from adopting a 2050 carbon neutrality target. The four countries complained that the date was too specific for them.

Preventing dangerous climate change is a key priority for the European Union — at least that’s what the Union claims. The declared goal is to cut emissions by 80-95% by 2050, although some countries appear to be taking it more seriously than others. Ultimately, EU officials say they hope the continent can go completely carbon neutral — which is why, at the recent Brussels summit, officials wrote a draft that would have countries go carbon neutral by 2050.

The draft was regarded by many as too vague and not substantial enough, but it was, at the very least, a statement of intention. However, even that couldn’t take place.

The main opposition of this pact came from Poland. Poland is one of the biggest energy producers in the area and a net exporter of energy — but the vast majority of it is coming from fossil fuels. In 2015, just 5% of the country’s energy came from renewable sources, and the biggest source of energy is coal. Poland has also clashed with the EU on a number of issues, including environmental issues such as stopping logging in the primeval Białowieża Forest.

Poland gathered the help of another contrarian European country — Hungary — and neighboring Czech Republic, another coal-rich country. According to one source, Estonia was also not convinced to support the carbon neutrality plan. This quartet produced enough opposition to block the text from the draft, since consensus must be reached to take any legal action.

The final text now says the EU aspires to climate neutrality “in line with the Paris agreement”, which is vague and open to interpretation. The Paris Agreement mentions that the world should go carbon-neutral “in the second half of this century”, but it also says that climate change needs to be limited at 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, with the more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees.

The mention of the year 2050 was moved to a footnote which reads “For a large majority of member states, climate neutrality must be achieved by 2050.”

The news will come as a disappointment to many who are hoping for a swift transition towards sustainable energy sources. Greenpeace said that Europe’s governments “had a chance to lead from the front and put Europe on a rapid path to full decarbonisation,” but “they blew it.”

“The reference to being in line with the Paris agreement in such a flimsy text makes a mockery of that agreement, and should not be allowed to stand,” said WWF.

Not everything is lost, however. Individual countries can still take more action and the rest of the EU states are expected to pursue the objective in the future, particularly after the 1st of July, when Finland’s Presidency of the EU Council begins. Finland has pledged to go carbon-neutral by 2035.