If the dictionaries hadn’t already chosen ‘school strike’ or ‘climate emergency’ as their words of the year for 2019, ‘net zero’ would have been a contender. It was suddenly everywhere, overtaking the previous favourite term of being carbon neutral. And in the process, it’s gathered a bit scepticism that I think we should address.
For example, the Church of England recently announced a target to reach net zero emissions by 2030. This is positive news, and yet I had emails the following day pouring cold water on it. “I notice it’s net zero” they said, “not absolute zero.” In a spirit of greener-than-thou, some were writing the church’s target off as greenwash.
This is job for Captain Kibosh: asking the Church of England to aim for absolute zero is asking the impossible. It literally cannot be done. You would have to abolish it completely. Same for Britain as a whole, or the many companies that have net zero targets.
Absolute zero can only really be applied to individual processes, and very few things will qualify. Any complex entity will have a mixture of positive and negative impacts, and the challenge is to balance them out.
The sun falling on my solar panels is zero carbon. However, the moment I try to capture it, it becomes a more complex process that involves carbon. The manufacture, installation and maintenance of the panels has to be accounted for. Choosing to walk rather than drive my car might look zero carbon, but that depends on what I had for lunch. What if the calories that power my stroll were from a sausage sandwich?
Even if my lunch was 100% plants sourced from my own garden, there’s still a carbon cost to everything we ever do. As an animal, I emit CO2 with every breath. The only way for me to achieve absolute zero carbon would be for be to commit suicide.
So there’s no shame in aiming for ‘net’ zero. It’s an honest term for what we’re trying to do, and in aiming to strike a balance, I think it’s more honest to the way nature works too. With animals that emit CO2 and plants that absorb it, nature isn’t absolute zero carbon. It’s just in balance.
For a national target, net zero is the only way to do it, and of course it gives us two different angles of attack. One is to reduce our carbon. The other is to increase our capacity to absorb it, by planting trees, restoring wetlands and building soil. The more we can increase the positive side of that ‘net’ equation, the more flexibility we will have about the negative side.
The reason people are cynical about this kind of balancing is that sometimes people want to use offsets to avoid carbon reductions. This gets especially dubious when the offsets are external to the country – for example, Norway’s mooted 2030 target allowed for tree planting in other countries, so it wasn’t a net zero target within Norway’s own borders. That starts to look like cheating, but even here we should keep a nuanced view. A city state like Singapore could never be internally net zero. Companies that don’t manage land as part of their operations have limited opportunities to pursue carbon positive policies. I don’t personally have enough land to make my own household’s emissions net zero, and need to look for external options.
In short, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about net zero targets. They can be misused, sure. But in most contexts it’s a sensible term for what we’re trying to do. The questions we need to ask should be about how the balance will be achieved. Is anything being excluded? (Like oil companies being ‘net zero’ but not counting the oil.) Are we using the full range of tools at our disposal? If offsets are being used, are they a legitimate last resort or an excuse to ignore emissions?
Most of all, we need to be careful that we don’t greet every net zero announcement with blanket cynicism. If we go around demanding the impossible, we will end up with nothing.