Transitioning to a net zero world will require significant transformations in producing, consuming, and moving around. A clear and robust net zero provides a critical frame of reference for decarbonization efforts by nation-states, sub-national entities, companies, and others.
A successful framework will rely on urgency and comprehensive emissions cuts, including removing difficult gases, with strong social and environmental integrity. Learn about the seven attributes that define net zero.
Net zero aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to balance those removed from the atmosphere (or “negative”). This is a central part of the Paris Agreement, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Net zero is a framework for climate action that draws on physical climate science. However, it must also be operationalized through social and economic systems. Net zero meaning includes a solid commitment to frontloading emission reductions and comprehensive coverage of all sources and sinks. It also requires a robust and transparent approach to carbon dioxide removals, and a full range of ecosystem services should be protected and promoted rather than just carbon storage.
Some industries and activities – such as aviation, shipping, cement, and land use – are difficult to cut to zero on the timescales required to meet the Paris temperature targets. In these cases, they must be offset by permanent carbon removal – harmful emissions – so that the balance between emissions and sinks is a ‘hard net zero.’
EPA researchers are exploring the many ways to achieve net zero, including conserving water, reducing energy use, and eliminating solid waste sent to landfills. Their work aims to pool federal, state, and local expertise and resources to help communities become more sustainable and resilient.
The global net human-caused carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions must be reduced to zero to avoid catastrophic climate damage. This means that ongoing CO2 emissions must be balanced by removals from the atmosphere, either by reducing emissions elsewhere or through technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).
In practice, it will be necessary for companies to decarbonize all sectors to achieve net zero. This is particularly true for the energy sector, represents around three-quarters of global emissions. The ongoing shift from coal to gas and renewable sources significantly decreases emissions in this industry. However, further significant cuts are needed to reduce emissions and replace fossil fuels in transport and industry.
Some emissions sources will likely not be eliminated, even with the best possible mitigation efforts – for example, aviation and agriculture. An essential facet of net zero is that it requires a greater focus on eliminating difficult emissions than previously seen under partial emission targets.
This interpretation of net zero is crucial because it enables the concept to be applied on the scale that global temperature goals demand and limits the scope for compensation between different climate drivers. It also imposes constraints on the timing and governance of remaining emissions and multi-decadal removals.
The global system reacts strongly to small changes in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. It is, therefore, essential to bring the overall system back into balance by reducing emissions and increasing removals through natural and artificial carbon sinks.
This requires a comprehensive approach to emissions reductions, focusing on the hardest-to-treat sectors and sources. It also requires a commitment to scale up removals through direct project activity or support for other projects.
International science shows that to prevent the worst climate damage, human-caused emissions must be reduced by around 45 percent of 2010 levels globally by 2030 and reach net zero around 2050. This is a highly challenging goal, given the scale of global emissions and the complexity of achieving net zero.
Countries typically set net-zero targets as part of their nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement, national climate change strategies, long-term low GHG emission development plans, or other domestic laws and policies. These targets are typically accompanied by equity guardrails, ensuring that the transition to net zero is inclusive, fair, and feasible for all.
In developed nations with a legacy of high carbon activities, this will require reskilling and redeployment of workers and shifting investment decisions to avoid stranded assets. In developing countries, this will require proactively training young people for the low-carbon economy and may involve some disruption to livelihoods.
There needs to be more clarity over what net zero means.
The global scientific consensus is that human emissions of greenhouse gases need to reach net zero around 2050 if we are to prevent the worst climate damage. This is the same as the objective of the Paris Agreement and is also known as carbon neutrality or climate neutrality.
Reaching net zero requires transforming all seven key energy and land-use systems that produce and absorb greenhouse gas emissions: power, industry, mobility, buildings, agriculture, forestry, and waste. This must be achieved by reducing and shifting to low-emissions sources, counteracting any remaining emissions through active carbon removal, and using circularity to optimize resource efficiency. The transition must be permanent so that removed carbon is not re-emitted into the atmosphere in the future through improper storage or deforestation.
Achieving net zero will require a wide range of actors to participate in delivering on it, including local communities, government bodies, businesses, city administrations, and financial institutions. A robust and inclusive societal debate is essential to broaden support and accelerate progress toward net zero.
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