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What does it mean to be net-zero?

As the UK government is working towards a net-zero target for 2050, it begs the question, what does net zero mean? In this blog post, we will break down precisely what it means to be net-zero and why the government has set the target. 

The UK government net-zero target

In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050. The net-zero target will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. The previous target was to achieve a minimum reduction of 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. 

 In a statement published on the GOV.UK website, it was reported that: “The UK has already reduced emissions by 42% while growing the economy by 72% and has put clean growth at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy. This could see the number of “green-collar jobs” grow to 2 million and the value of exports from the low carbon economy grow to £170 billion a year by 2030.”

 As Chris Skidmore, the Energy and Clean Growth Minister signed the legally binding document to solidify the government’s pledge, he said: “The UK kick-started the Industrial Revolution, which was responsible for economic growth across the globe but also for increasing emissions.” 

 He continued: “Today, we’re leading the world yet again in becoming the first major economy to pass new laws to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050 while remaining committed to growing the economy – putting clean growth at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy.” 

 The UK’s 2050 net-zero target – one of the most ambitious in the world – was encouraged by the Committee on Climate Change, the UK’s independent climate advisory body. 

What does net zero mean? 

Let’s start off by answering the primary question, what does net zero mean? 

 The government website states that: “net-zero means any emissions would be balanced by schemes to offset an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or using technology like carbon capture and storage.” 

 To reach the target of net-zero by 2050, the UK will need to cut emissions from homes, transport, industrial operations and agriculture. In simple terms, these sectors will need to ensure they reduce the amount of carbon they’re putting into the atmosphere. 

 For some industries, such as aviation, it’s not as simple as cutting emissions altogether. For the sectors that it’s too costly or complex to reduce emissions totally, the residual emissions will need to be removed from the atmosphere. 

 To achieve net-zero for these sectors, residual emissions will need to be offset by using negative emissions technologies and initiatives such as planting more trees to absorb the CO2 in the atmosphere. You can think of it as balancing the scales to ensure the overall emissions sit at net-zero. 

Negative emissions technologies 

Because of the cost or complex nature of specific industries such as aviation and manufacturing reaching net-zero, there will be a need for negative emission technologies. 

 One of the most common negative emission technologies involved carbon capture and storage (CSS). CSS is an effective method of reducing carbon emissions from industrial processes such as steel production or the burning of fossil fuels to generate power. The carbon that is produced from these activities is transported from the location it was produced via ship or in a pipeline and injected into rock formations. The rock formations sit deep underground and will permanently house the carbon to prevent it from going into the atmosphere. 

Why do we need to be net-zero? 

Tackling climate change is at the top of the agenda for many countries, companies, and individuals worldwide. We’re all under increasing pressure to be mindful of our carbon footprint and protect the planet. 

 According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the warmest 20 years on record have been in the past 22 years. The evidence shows our planet is getting hotter, and the problem is becoming even more of a concern in recent years. The warmest four years on record were from 2015 to 2018, as global averages sit 1 degree higher than in the pre-industrial era. 

 While you may think a degree isn’t too much of a concern, research suggested that it already has a negative impact. If the temperature continues to rise following recent trends, global temperatures could rise as much as 3 to 5 degrees by 2100; we need to act now. 

 With the small yet significant rise in temperature, we’ve seen the effects first-hand. From erratic weather patterns to heatwaves, extreme flooding and rising sea levels, the pressure is on to ensure global warming doesn’t intensify in the coming years. 

What causes climate change? 

Many scientists and governments recognise that higher levels of greenhouse gases are triggering climate change in the atmosphere, hence the need to reduce greenhouse gases rapidly. 

 The name ‘greenhouse gases’ comes from the greenhouse effect on the Earth’s surface and the air above it. Much like a greenhouse, these particular gases trap energy from the sun, which has a warming effect on the planet. The most common greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour. 

The cost of net-zero

 In the most recent Carbon Budget released last year, the Committee on Climate Change estimated that the cost of achieving net-zero would be around 0.6% of the UK’s GBP by the early 2030s, falling to approximately 0.5% by the date of the target, 2050. In monetary terms, this would mean the government will need to increase investment in low carbon technologies from around £10 billion to £50 billion by 2050. 

 While it’s not cheap, avoiding becoming net-zero is no longer an option. According to the Committee on Climate Change, if other countries follow the UK’s lead and reach a net-zero emissions target by 2050, there would be a 50% likelihood that we can avoid a ‘catastrophic’ temperature rise of 1.5 degrees by the year 2100. Ultimately, you can’t put a price on protecting the planet.

We can all play our part to help reduce the effects of climate change by switching to a sustainable energy alternative for our homes. Get in touch today to start your solar journey.