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.
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.
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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.