What is a net zero economy? Is it possible?

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What is a net zero economy? Is it possible?

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 What is a net zero economy? Is it possible?
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  • Net zero refers to removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere by shifting to renewable energy and compensating for the existing levels of the gas.
  • Net zero emissions is different from gross zero emissions as the latter projects an unrealistic scenario under which no carbon is released into the air.
  • Developments on negative emissions technology are underway to help accelerate the carbon neutrality process.

The term net zero has now become a mandatory constituent of most countries’ environmental commitments. Most countries are adopting an approach of reducing their carbon emissions to net zero. But what does net zero mean for the environment and, for these countries?

Also termed as carbon neutrality, net zero refers to reducing the net load of carbon emissions on the environment down to zero. This is not that same as “no carbon emissions” or “zero carbon emissions”, both of which require no amount of carbon to be released in the economy.

The net zero approach requires participants to compensate for the carbon released into the environment by making conscious efforts to reduce the overall level of emissions as well. Thus, the approach requires a reduction in the carbon emissions and those emissions which can not be reduced are to be taken out of the atmosphere. This means offsetting these inevitable emissions with methods that reduce the carbon load on the environment.

RELATED READ: Here’s why net zero emission is a pressing priority

The need for carbon reduction

Carbon is one of the most abundantly present components in the environment. Human activities have significantly added to the overall level of carbon emissions in the world. Natural sources of carbon emission are higher than human-made sources. The impact of these activities has been the unbalanced carbon dioxide levels observed in the atmosphere.

Human carbon emissions can come from burning fossil fuels like coal, natura gas and oil. The chopping of trees has also contributed to the release of carbon emissions. Additionally, land use charges as well as certain industrial processes.

Some natural sources of carbon also exist, including decomposition of organisms and activities as simple as respiration. Incidents like forest fires, weathering of carbonated rocks and eruption of volcanoes also increase the CO2 in the air, though these are less likely to occur too frequently.

Carbon, being a greenhouse gas, is seriously harmful to the environment. Due to its presence in almost every walk of life, it is difficult to completely remove carbon from the atmosphere. The high carbon levels make carbon more harmful than other gases.

Gross zero and net zero

Keeping the targets achievable is one of the biggest duties of international regulators of climate change. Policymakers and climate change activists strive to initiate a change in whatever way possible, rather than aiming for the impossible to happen.

Zero or gross zero emissions may sound like an ideal operation and one that is more effective. However, it is not achievable. Carbon is a naturally present substance and thus, its emissions are a constituent of nature and its various cycles. Completely removing carbon could shockingly be harmful from the long-term perspective.

Additionally, attaining zero carbon emissions is not a realistic proposition. Some level of carbon would always be left despite the best effort of experts to remove it. Thus, the approach towards carbon neutrality entails curbing and compensation efforts rather than complete removal of the gas.

A shot in the dark or a reasonable target?

Global leaders have joined hands in the fight towards climate change and have set 2050 as the target year for reaching carbon neutrality. Experts have estimated that reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is a possibility under stringent and efficient climate protection policies.

The next decade would be crucial in achieving this goal. All possible efforts including a switch to electric vehicles, installation of renewable energy sources, improving efficiency of existing machinery and deploying carbon capture equipment would have to be implemented in full swing.

Evidently, the policies and efforts that have currently been implemented across countries are not enough. More efforts are needed to make this goal a reality. It is surprising to note that technologies as well-known as wind and solar energy generators are still not accessible to various parts of the world. Much of the needed reductions can be achieved if countries and global institutions make a conscious effort to bring them into their daily life.

The current developments at the G7 summit seem to provide much relief regarding where the climate change debate is heading. However, real results would only be realized when political interference minimises.

ALSO READ: Do G7 nations favour investment in fossil fuels over green energy?

Negative emissions technologies

Negative emissions technologies (NET) are a major constituent of the carbon neutrality effort chain. These technologies help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, one of the targeted goals under carbon neutrality.

Simply removing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it into other reservoirs like forests, soils or grasslands may not be such an effective solution. This carbon could easily escape and leak into the atmosphere again. Additionally, NETs can potentially bring along with them a scarcity of cultivable and usable land.

Adding to these challenges, the technology is not yet developed to facilitate a large-scale carbon removal. Surprisingly, despite the lack of adequate evidence, these NETs have been incorporated into modelling techniques used to arrive at 2050 as the year of carbon neutrality.

This leads us back to square one. The lack of appropriate technology has slowed down the shifting to renewable sources of energy. Making renewable energy generators affordable could be a starting point for some countries. With actionable technology in the future, it is quite possible that targets would be achieved before 2050. Till then, governments must do with whatever technological options they have. 

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