What is net zero?
Net zero is the point at which greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere are balanced by an equivalent amount removed from the atmosphere
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What is net zero?

Net zero means the point at which global net human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including carbon dioxide and methane, have been cut to as close to zero as possible with any residual emissions permanently removed from the atmosphere.

Balancing the equation to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions will be extremely challenging since it will require eliminating all residual emissions—particularly those in hard-to-abate sectors like agriculture and steel, cement and chemical production. There is some conjecture over the validity of certain carbon removal techniques, but regardless, the quantities removed to balance what is emitted must be permanent. Permanence means it must not return into the atmosphere over time, such as through the destruction of forests or improper carbon capture and storage.

The concept of net zero GHG emissions was first popularized by the Paris Agreement (link resides outside ibm.com), a landmark deal negotiated at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) to limit the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.

The goal of the Paris Agreement is for the world to reach net zero GHG emissions in the second half of this century.

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Why net zero matters

To avert the worst impacts of climate change, global temperature increase needs to be capped at 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels.1 Today, the Earth is already 1.1°C (2°F) warmer than it was in the late 1800s. Meanwhile, global emissions continue to rise and the Earth’s temperature is on track to increase 2.7°C (4.7°F) by the end of this century, according to the UNDP’s Emissions Gap Report 2021 (link resides outside ibm.com).

International scientific consensus is that to keep global warming from breaching the 1.5°C threshold, near-term carbon emissions from human activities like the burning of fossil fuels must be reduced on the level of 45–50% by 2030 and at least 90% by 2050.2

Until net zero GHG emissions is achieved, the temperature of the planet will continue to rise with increasingly dire consequences. In a special report (link resides outside ibm.com) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (link resides outside ibm.com), a collection of the world’s leading climate scientists highlighted the severity of climate impacts with a 1.5°C increase and how much worse things will get if the global temperature increase hits 2°C (3.6°F). Some of the effects highlighted in the IPCC special report include heat waves, species loss and rising sea levels.

Net zero emissions targets

Various governmental and nongovernmental organizations have launched voluntary initiatives, networks or pledge platforms that public and private sector organizations can use to help publicly validate their ambitions and gauge performance to targets.

Below is an overview of some of these platforms:

Race to Zero

  • Race to Zero (link resides outside ibm.com) is a United Nations global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions and investors.

  • As of September 2022, 8,307 companies, 595 financial institutions, 1,136 cities, 52 states and regions, 1,125 educational institutions and 65 healthcare institutions have joined the Race to Zero.

  • It aggregates net zero commitments from numerous networks and initiatives across the climate action community and sets out substantive criteria that industry participants must meet.

  • Participants pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.

  • Participants commit to report progress against targets annually.
     

Building-level targets

  • The World Green Building Council (GBC) (link resides outside ibm.com) defines a net zero carbon building as a structure that is both highly energy efficient and fully powered by on-site or off-site renewable energy.

  • Its Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment challenges businesses, organizations, cities, states and regions to have all buildings within their direct control operating at net zero carbon by 2030, and all buildings by 2050.

  • Delivering a net zero carbon building requires a mix of improved energy system efficiencies, including behavioral changes, upgrades to plant and equipment (such as retrofitting with LED lighting), green energy purchases and, if necessary, carbon offsets.

  • As of November 2022, WorldGBC’s Advancing Net Zero (ANZ) project (link resides outside ibm.com) has been embraced by 34 Green Building Councils, including in Australia, the US, Canada and the UK.

  • In 2022 alone, 4.3 million square meters of green building space was cumulatively certified by Green Building Councils.

  • As of February 2023, over 170 businesses, cities and states or regions have committed to net zero buildings, and the numbers continue to grow (link resides outside ibm.com).

  • Performance against targets is measured using existing ratings tools such as NABERS in Australia.
     

SBTi Net Zero initiative

The Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) (link resides outside ibm.com) is more than a net zero pledge platform. It offers fee-based services to help organizations set their GHG emissions reduction targets and validate the targets against SBTi’s criteria. In 2021, the SBTI (link resides outside ibm.com) introduced its Net-Zero Standard, which they claim to be “the world’s first framework for corporate net zero target setting in line with climate science.”

Delivering on net zero targets

To achieve net zero GHG emissions, organizations need to measure their carbon emissions, identify opportunities for reduction, develop a plan, take action against it and measure and report on milestones.

For more on approaches to achieving emissions reduction targets, see decarbonization.

Net zero issues and challenges

While achieving net zero GHG emissions has gained considerable momentum, the concept is not without its challenges. In an assessment of climate pledges from various countries and corporations, the Net Zero Stocktake 2022 (link resides outside ibm.com) states, “In contrast to the near-universal coverage of country-level net zero targets, the volume and robustness of targets set by non-state actors is alarmingly weak and bound to face increasing scrutiny as UN, national and NGO-led accountability initiatives ramp up.”

While net zero GHG emissions pledges have been made by a large number of organizations, many of those had only pledged their intention with little to no follow through on how they would achieve their net zero targets.

This situation has also brought scrutiny on greenwashing. Greenwashing is when an organization presents an inaccurate or incomplete impression of their climate action to inflate their claims of environmental practices and performance results.

One method used by organizations to track their emissions and support their reduction claims is GHG accounting.

The calculation of greenhouse gas emissions is a complex process. The GHG Protocol Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard (link resides outside ibm.com) establishes methodologies for accounting and reporting of emissions and helps organizations create a greenhouse gas inventory. The inventory is a list of emissions sources and the associated emissions calculated using standardized methods, primarily based on using average emissions factors to convert different types of energy and fuel use into equivalent CO2 emissions.

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Net zero opportunity

While net zero is not without its issues and challenges, including those noted above, the movement has undoubtedly spurred climate action where it didn’t previously exist.

Collective climate action from organizations and jurisdictions around the world has given rise to climate policy, benchmarking and emissions transparency. Some investors are including net zero initiatives in their evaluation of organizational performance. In turn, organizations are making public commitments to deliver on these outcomes.

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Footnotes

¹ “Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change,” (link resides outside ibm.com) Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.), IPCC, 2018.

2 “UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2021,” (link resides outside ibm.com) UNEP, UNEP Copenhagen Climate Centre (UNEP-CCC), United Nations Environment Programme, Oct 2021.