What is net zero & what does it mean for businesses?
It sounds like an ‘80s pop group, but net zero is a serious term with some serious consequences for businesses in the UK.
In this guide to what is net zero, we’re explaining what this climate change term means and the implications for businesses across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
What is net zero?
Net zero is the balance between the volume of greenhouse gases produced and the volume removed from the atmosphere. When we achieve net zero, we’re removing as much greenhouse gas as we are producing.
Importantly, the goal of “net zero” is a way for countries, companies and individuals to tackle climate change and minimise, stop and reverse the impact. In fact, many believe it’s the best option we have of tackling climate change and reducing global warming.
Why is reaching net zero so important?
Net zero means we’re not adding to the overall amount of greenhouse gases in the environment, which is a pretty big deal for the planet.
Greenhouse gases sit within the earth’s atmosphere and absorb solar energy from the sun, preventing it from escaping – the most common being water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane. They help keep our planet warm and habitable.
Before the industrial revolution, everything was in balance, and our planet was emitting greenhouse gases and absorbing solar energy at a steady rate. Since the industrial revolution, we’re been emitting more greenhouse gases than we need, trapping too much of the sun’s energy. This is what’s known as global warming, which is causing climate change.
If we carry on in the same way, our planet could be 4°C warmer than before the Industrial Revolution by 2099. This has serious implications for weather patterns, natural disasters, sea levels, animal habitats and more.
Further reading: Why is carbon dioxide harmful to the environment?
Reaching net zero stops climate change in its tracks and, in theory, prevents the Earth from becoming any hotter. This leads to benefits including improved air quality and a better protected natural environment.
The UK’s net zero target
The UK was the world’s first major economy to set a net zero target back in 2019.
Parliament has passed legislation requiring the government to reduce the UK’s net emissions of greenhouse gases by 100% (compared to 1990) by 2050.
Interestingly, the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have been steadily falling over the past 30 years, despite level rising globally. In 2018, the UK’s emissions were 57% of 1990 levels. But, to keep in line with our commitments to keep global warming under 2 degrees celsius (as per the 2016 Paris Agreement) we need to do more.
The UK hopes to set a positive example to other countries, to show that a greener economy is workable, cost-effective and profitable – while benefiting from first mover advantage and producing some of the world’s finest green tech innovations (hello!)
Will companies be legally required to become carbon neutral or net zero?
The Climate Change Act 2008 (as amended in 2019), imposes a legal obligation on the UK government to reach net zero by 2050. It is not yet clear how this will be achieved or enforced.
However, with the UK not currently on track to meet its target, it’s likely that more stringent measures will be put into place. For example, we recently saw the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars brought forward.
Experts believe that it is technically feasible to reach 100% emissions reduced by the deadline, but that it will be very challenging.
The sectors most impacted by the UK’s net zero target
The sectors most affected by net zero targets will be those emitting the highest amount of greenhouse emissions (78% of total emissions):
- Energy supply
The energy sector has a slight advantage, having already significantly reduced its emissions thanks to renewable energy and phasing out of coal. The other sectors will find decarbonisation more difficult.
The areas most affected by the UK’s net zero target
Some areas of the UK will naturally find it easier and harder to reach net zero. For example, Scotland believes it can reach 100% by 2045, thanks to its land and ability to plant forests. Wales, on the other hand, believes it won’t reach 100% until 2055 because of its high agricultural emissions.
The grey areas in achieving net zero
There are, of course, some grey areas in achieving net zero. For example, what about aviation and shipping emissions produced in UK territories?
Currently, these don’t count towards the UK’s carbon budgets (five-year caps on the total amount of emissions allowed from the UK in order to reach the 2050 target) but they will count towards the 2050 target.
How can we achieve net zero?
There are two steps to achieving net zero and balancing the amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere against the amount removed from the atmosphere.
1. Reduce the amount of greenhouse gases you release into the atmosphere
The first step is reducing the amount of greenhouse gases you emit via transport, industrial processes, agriculture and power generation.
2. Offset the amount of greenhouse gases you release into the atmosphere
The second step is removing the amount of greenhouse gases you release into the atmosphere, for example, by planting trees to offset your carbon dioxide emissions.
Think of it as like maintaining weight. First, you need to reduce the number of calories you eat to your maintenance level, and then you need to introduce exercise (we like swimming) to offset any calories or treats that take you above your maintenance level.
Differences between net zero and other terms
What’s the difference between net zero and carbon neutral?
The terms net zero and carbon neutral both refer to balancing the output of your emissions with the amount removed from the atmosphere. The difference is that net zero refers to greenhouse gases (including CO2), while carbon neutral refers to carbon dioxide emissions only.
What’s the difference between net zero and gross zero?
Gross zero means eliminating all emissions, whereas net zero means reducing emissions as much as possible and removing the remaining equivalent from the atmosphere.
Even with the very best efforts, reaching gross zero isn’t realistic, certainly not in the foreseeable future.
But, rather than give up and admit defeat, a net zero target allows us to make a positive impact on the planet and reduce the effects of climate change. It recognises that some emissions are inevitable and necessary for our country to function, our businesses to survive and our lives to continue as normal.
How can you get involved?
Preparing to help the UK reach net zero emissions isn’t just good business planning, but it’s also hugely beneficial to the environment.
At MoreTrees, we want to make it each for your business to reach net zero and becoming carbon neutral by planting trees.
Each tree costs £1 and you plant them manually, via a spreadsheet or automatically using our API or Zapier integration.
Even better, you can shout about it by planting trees on behalf of customers, clients, colleagues and friends – telling them you’re doing your part and thinking of them at the same time.