Climate Action

What does net-zero emissions mean and how can we get there?

Net zero emissions can be reached by switching to renewable energy.

When 'net-zero' is reached, this means that global greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are in balance with emissions reductions. Image: UNSPLASH/chris robert

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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SDG 13: Climate Action

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  • Reaching net zero emissions means removing an equal amount of CO2 from the atmosphere as we release into it.
  • Despite the growth of sustainable technologies in recent years, carbon emissions continue to increase.
  • Current climate change commitments are not enough to keep the planet within 1.5℃ above pre-industrial times.
  • Urgent and coordinated global action is needed within the next decade to combat the growing climate change threat.

Calls for governments, companies and other organizations to bolster commitments to reach net zero emissions are becoming increasingly widespread as the effects of failing to limit climate change become more apparent.

But what does “net zero” actually mean? And importantly, what can be done to put the planet’s emissions on a safe course?

Put simply, the term net zero applies to a situation where global greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are in balance with emissions reductions. At net zero, carbon dioxide emissions are still generated, but an equal amount of carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere as is released into it, resulting in zero increase in net emissions.

While sustainability efforts are increasing around the world, some sectors are harder to decarbonize than others. Heavy industries like iron and steelmaking, for example, and transport like aviation, shipping and road haulage are particularly hard to electrify.

Abating emissions in these sectors requires new climate-tech solutions, such as carbon-capture utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies that prevent CO2 emissions from heavy industry reaching the atmosphere. Synthetic fuels can provide cleaner drop-in alternatives to fossil fuels like petrol or diesel for aeroplanes, ships and trucks.

Many new emissions-busting technologies are still at the early stage of development, with the business case yet to be proven. Reaching net zero will require huge investment to scale up these solutions and bring costs down.

The growing climate crisis

Since the first COP talks held in 1995, the energy transition has gained momentum. Power from wind and solar sources is fast becoming cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives, large parts of society and industry are being electrified, and technologies like carbon capture and synthetic fuels are helping to decarbonize hard-to-electrify sectors like steelmaking and aviation.

Energy transition innovations like these — and others still to be developed — are a crucial part of efforts to combat climate change.

But despite advances, much of this technology is yet to be scaled up and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

a chart showing that current climate commitments put the planet on course to reach between 2.7 – 3.1℃ by 2100
Current climate commitments put the planet on course to reach between 2.7 – 3.1℃ by 2100 Image: Our World In Data

Annual global greenhouse gas emissions exceeded 50 gigatonnes, before the pandemic brought many countries to a virtual economic standstill. But as the world bounces back to business-as-usual, emissions are once again on the rise.

Current climate policies put the planet on course to reach at least 2.7℃ above pre-industrial times by 2100. This potentially cataclysmic rate of warming is approximately twice the 1.5℃ target set by the Paris Agreement.

What can we do to reach net zero emissions?

Climate science and scenarios outlined in reports by bodies like the IEA and the IPCC, all call for urgent action to address the climate crisis. The coming decade is crucial.

Agreements reached at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, UK, are a vital chance to gain a global consensus on action to cut emissions and reach net zero. Commitment is needed from global leaders to at least halve global emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by mid-century. And a clear plan for how to deliver on these commitments is needed, along with interim emissions targets.

As the climate crisis is a global threat, the world needs to find global solutions, by committing to support developing countries' efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

The First Movers Coalition, announced at COP26, is a partnership between the World Economic Forum and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.

It’s a platform for companies to commit to buying zero-emission goods and services by 2030, to create demand for low-carbon technologies, make them cost-competitive and build the clean supply chains of the future.

Three main areas of action were outlined in a recent open letter for world leaders at COP26, signed by more than 90 CEOs of multinational companies:

1. The switch from fossil fuels to clean energy and clean energy products needs to accelerate in order to achieve net zero. Policymakers must shift subsidies and financial support away from fossil fuels to clean energy and low carbon technologies, cut tariffs on climate-friendly practices and goods, and take adequate measures to ensure a just transition.

2. Policymakers must support and incentivize first-movers in the fight against climate change, to help scale existing proven solutions and develop new sustainable technologies. Universally harmonized laws and regulations can help accelerate key technologies and sustainable best practices and encourage public adoption of low-carbon products.

3. Public and private investment is a crucial part of creating resilient supply chains and infrastructure that can help advance climate resilience, sustainable food production and secure water supplies.

Mobilizing capital for large scale infrastructure projects requires a coordinated approach between developers, investors, public finance institutions and governments, particularly in developing countries.

The IEA’s recent Net Zero by 2050 report sets out a roadmap for policymakers and world leaders to follow, setting out key milestones over the coming three decades to reach net zero by 2050. Reaching net zero by 2050 is not going to be easy, but it can be done.

The science is clear, what is needed now is urgent, robust and sustained global action.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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