The Path to Net Zero
In simple terms, net zero means balancing the greenhouse gases we emit with the emission we remove from the atmosphere, over a period of time. Governments and organizations around the world are now setting net zero targets, but it’s important to understand some of the differences in how they are being set and what this means for net zero.
The first point is that net zero requires all GHGs to be addressed, not just CO2. Any target that addresses only CO2 is not addressing the entirety of the problem and can only be considered ‘carbon-zero’. The second variable is the timeframe. 2050 is the deadline defined within the Paris agreement. Targets to achieve net zero after this date will therefore be deficient in their contribution to limiting global warming to 1.5°C, but can still be considered ‘carbon neutral’, for which no specified deadline exists.
Thirdly, we need to consider the scope of emissions being targeted. The concept of scope 1, 2 and 3 was introduced in the GHG Protocol and is carefully defined to ensure that multiple companies don’t account for the same emissions in the same scope.
Scope 1 is direct emissions from sources that are owned or controlled by the company, such as stationary combustion in its boilers, process emissions or mobile emissions from fleet vehicles. Scope 2 accounts for the indirect emissions from the electricity used by the organization. Scope 3 covers all other indirect emissions which occur as a result of the company’s activities but originate from sources outside its ownership or control. This may include goods purchased, waste generated or emissions from products during their use.
Targeting scope 1 and 2 emissions is, of course, easier but the vast majority of any organization’s emissions are often within the scope 3 supply chain. These emissions have to be targeted if net zero is the goal, with an honest assessment of the boundaries of the organization to ensure GHG emissions are complete, and that material sources are not excluded.
Finally, because reducing emissions to absolute zero avoidance (or ‘gross zero’) is simply not practicable or cost effective, particularly in certain sectors, net zero enables emissions that can't be eliminated to be offset. Where this is the case, the robustness of any offset requires equally careful thought. Unfortunately, not all offsets are equal, with a number of factors needing careful consideration if the process is to be robust - each of these should be confirmed through independent, third-party verification.
- Ensure offsets are additional to what would have happened anyway
- Offsets must result in permanent carbon removal
- Offsets must not result in carbon leakage - where emissions will simply be moved elsewhere
- Double-counting should be avoided, through an independent and credible registry
Clearly then, even when setting out your targets, the challenge of net zero is complex and requires thought, resource and planning – the potential business benefits, however, are clear to see. Governments have, and will continue to, set policy to decarbonize our economies through regulation and taxation, ultimately making environmental issues a financial concern for organizations across all sectors.
Reviewing and reducing emissions is a means of reducing system wastage – of energy, raw materials and time – making businesses more efficient and cost effective. Analyzing the risks and opportunities presented by climate change can open up new sustainable opportunities, creating competitive advantage and enhancing brand value. And we have seen all too clearly how fragile global supply chains and systems can be. Driving collaboration within the supply chain and considering more local connections can not only reduce emissions but cut costs and enhance supply chain security.
With the climate an imperative and a raft of compelling business reasons to act, it’s critical that companies are able to cut through complexity and take that important first step. In our second and third installments in this series we will explore the best approach to set you on your net zero path and the standards and guidance that can support that journey to a future-proofed and more sustainable business.
About the Author
Her 16+ years of practice experience in the environmental field have taken her to landfills, power plants, cruise ships, upstream and downstream oil and gas operations, chemical plants, hotels, agricultural operations, and various manufacturing facilities. She received a B.S. in civil engineering from Purdue University.