In 2019, the term ‘net zero’ became the guiding principle or term for action on climate change. This term has been used in international climate change conferences, parliamentary debates, government policy and with local environmental agencies, and is often associated with targets that government, businesses and industry need to meet in their attempts to tackle climate change. But what does it all mean?
For many businesses, the term may sound overwhelming and cause apprehension as to what expenses and changes businesses will incur by committing to net zero. This article aims to clearly outline the meaning of net zero, why it is so important to aim for net zero and how businesses can make specific strategic changes now that will positively impact their experience and contribution to the green revolution in the future.
What does net zero mean?
Net zero is the best way in which governments around the world can attempt to tackle climate change. According to The Institute for Government, “net zero refers to achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that we put into the atmosphere and the amount removed from the atmosphere”.
Many countries around the world have made a commitment to move towards a net zero economy, reducing the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through strategic policy implementation.
In June 2019, the UK Parliament passed legislation, on the advice of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), necessitating UK government to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and drop to net zero by 2050 relative to its 1990 levels of 600 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2). This policy was a direct result of commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement, where 195 states and the European Union signed and committed to ensuring that global warming is kept under 2C above pre-industrial levels and aim efforts towards limiting warming to 1.5C.
The UK was the first Group of Seven (G7) country to legislate this commitment in its national law. The UK is striving to be a climate change pioneer, setting an example to encourage other countries to also commit to sustainable, long-term emission reduction.
Net zero can be achieved through two supporting and paralleled priorities:
- By reducing the amount of existing CO2e emissions through legislative means. This should be the first priority of government’s action on climate change.
- By actively removing greenhouse gases. It is impossible and unrealistic at this time to be able to remove all carbon emissions, hence the use of the term ‘net zero’ as opposed to ‘gross zero’. This priority provides further mitigation attempts when the first priority of reduction is not effective. Climate research suggests there are two pathways, natural and artificial, that can help in the removal of carbon emissions from the atmosphere:
- Artificial: As the Prime Minister highlighted in the government’s green revolution 10-point plan, carbon capture through storage methods and technological advancements is of paramount importance in ensuring that greenhouse gases are successfully removed from the atmosphere.
- Natural: The planting and establishing of forests, globally, play a significant role in regulating CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, closely followed by oceans, the atmosphere and soil and plant ecosystems. By legislating strategies to limit and store greenhouse gases, these naturally occurring carbon sinks (absorbing and storing more carbon than released) will become less burdened and enhance their function in the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. To achieve this, the lower the emissions through CO2 reduction, the easier the cancelling out by the amount removed becomes. Therefore, both means – reducing and removing – are critical.
If you would like to find out more about how the UK aims to reach this goal of net zero, here is a link to iiE’s view on the UK’s 10 Point Green Plan
Why is reaching net zero needed?
The climate crisis is more acute today than it has ever been before, as more pressures are placed on the environment: with unsustainable population growth, deforestation, and industrial development. We are already seeing its detrimental effects through the increase and severity of floods, droughts, rising sea levels, crop failures, and more. Many of these effects are ‘locked in’ due to existing greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere, but it is imperative that radical steps are taken to reduce our emissions in a focused and planned way to protect our planet and its resources for future generations.
The most aggressive efforts for global climate restoration needs to happen now and cannot be pushed back another ten years, risking further irreparable damage that may see us hitting planetary tipping points. Climate change research has indicated that in order to halt the effects of climate change, there needs to be a drastic eradication of carbon emissions. We need to start polluting less, legislating mitigation strategies that hold government, businesses, manufacturing and the fossil fuel industry to account and define clear ways in which natural resources and land can be used as alternative means for sustainable development.
How can businesses aim for net zero?
All sectors within the global market have a shared responsibility to take action in limiting their greenhouse gas emissions. A functional definition of net zero for businesses is “to reduce company wide and value-chain greenhouse gas emissions”. It is integral that businesses start to proactively prepare and implement sustainable long-term plans and emission reduction and removal strategies.
The businesses that take ambitious action on climate change, sooner rather than later, will succeed in a zero-carbon future. It is a financial imperative, as well as a moral and even legal obligation of all businesses, regardless of their size, in the UK to accelerate their efforts in decarbonisation. Failure to do so may soon lead to incurring more costs and sanctions down the line, including reputational harm or even undermining the basis for many existing businesses models, rendering them financially unsustainable.
Businesses need to establish net zero science-based targets that will help them plan for ambitious carbon reduction strategies and business-wide transformational change. The business model and operating practices need to include sustainable ways of measuring carbon emissions and tracking the impact of business efforts in reducing these carbon emissions.
Targets should always include collaboration between supply chain and the business and could include measuring and reducing energy consumption and improvements in energy efficiency and transportation. By enhancing business action to climate change, your reputation and trust among partners, investors, customers and other businesses will be strengthened.
There has already been a positive response from many businesses in the UK to meet the government’s target and implement strategies to become carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050, albeit many of them from large, established organisations. However, there are also many businesses, especially SMEs, that feel they are currently not strategically, technologically and organisationally prepared to deliver net zero. Several issues that affect them include the business pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, costs associated with carbon financing, the need for developing and implementing new technologies and the lack of in-house expertise.
Small businesses can take the following steps to start their journey to net zero:
- Reduce energy consumption and switch to green energy sources, when possible.
- Insulate buildings to reduce energy waste from heating.
- Green your business fleet, and develop a strategy for investing in hybrid/electric transportation.
- Develop data analysis and management systems that will monitor and assess your company’s performance.
- Implement energy efficiency projects that focus on short and long term CO2e reduction targets.
Ensure procurement contracts reinforce your own sustainability goals, and work with suppliers to help them meet your net zero expectations.
Reaching net zero will be difficult for many businesses, but not impossible. External support from reputable organisations, such as iiE, will help organisations with this transformational change in practical ways that will help upskill your staff understanding of sustainability.
How can iiE support your organisation’s journey?
At iiE, we know that a one-size-fits-all strategy does not work, because each business is unique in its functions and processes. Likewise, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to reducing carbon emissions. iiE works alongside businesses to achieve carbon reductions through the following, collaborative approaches:
- iiE has a team of professional experts who have extensive knowledge and experience to help you develop mitigation strategies that are unique to your business needs and focus on both short and long-term efforts in reducing carbon emissions.
- We can help your business identify areas of energy inefficiency and can provide ways in which to improve the overall energy performance of the organisation.
- We work in partnership with Forest Carbon to help businesses offset unavoidable carbon emissions, creating long term woodlands that have co-benefits for nature as well as carbon sequestration.
The iiE team would like to thank Ashleigh Edden for submitting this article.