Net Zero – What does it mean?
Net zero refers to the balance between the volume of greenhouse gasses produced versus the volume that is removed from the atmosphere. Net zero will be reached when we no longer produce more greenhouse gasses than is removed. When you hear a conversation about ‘net zero’ emissions, often this will move onto a conversation about ‘climate change’ – which is one of the adverse effects of having the balance so heavily skewed towards producing greenhouse gasses.
Climate Change – The driving force behind the push to net zero
According to the vast majority of scientists – the planet is getting hotter. There has been a gradual increase in temperature since the industrial revolution – with average global temperatures now 1℃ higher than they were pre-industrial era. Truth be told, it doesn’t sound like such a huge increase – but this is more than enough for adverse effects to be seen worldwide.
Observed weather patterns seem to be far more erratic than usual with heatwaves, floods, severe storms, melting of polar ice, and rising sea-levels becoming commonplace worldwide.
If anybody tries to downplay the severity of climate change – gently remind them that of the 20 warmest years ever recorded, all 20 have occurred within the last 22 years.
What is causing climate change?
It is theorised by climate scientists that climate change is caused by higher levels of greenhouse gasses trapped within the atmosphere – kindly produced by humans. Greenhouse gasses are produced from most areas of human productivity but the biggest culprits are from manufacturing, travel and automobiles, and fossil-fuel based energy production.
These industries are known to release copious amounts of greenhouse gasses as a by-product – releasing carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapour into the atmosphere. As we are producing more greenhouse gasses than are removed – it leads to an accumulation over time. These gasses then act like a blanket, trapping energy from the sun and heating the earth.
How do we stop this trend?
Well, this goes some way to explaining why the term ‘net-zero’ keeps cropping up in conversations like this. The problem of greenhouse gasses accumulating in the atmosphere is a direct result of the imbalance between production and removal of greenhouse gasses. As such – fixing this imbalance is crucial to stopping climate change.
This can be done in two ways. Firstly, by lowering the emissions that we are releasing into the atmosphere.
Secondly, by removing more greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. As the ratio between production/removal is the thing that is causing the issue, this means that we are also able to achieve our goals by acting inversely to the previous point – increasing removal of greenhouse gasses.
How do we stop this trend – continued
As we have already covered – emissions are caused by many industrial processes, power generation, transport and travel, and agriculture. This list is not exhaustive, it just mentions the worst-offenders.
We can target lower emissions in these areas by introducing new technological advancements that result in higher efficiency, or less waste as a by-product.
Removal is slightly trickier – as the sheer volume of emissions makes it difficult. It is possible to capture carbon during industrial processes to stop it from ever being released, but there is a high-cost element to this technique.
If only there was an inexpensive, low maintenance, accessible, and easily implemented technology that is capable of removing carbon from the air and lowering our overall carbon emissions…
What it means to be net zero – not gross zero
Net zero takes into the account the ‘bigger’ picture of emissions.
Think of it like this: Net zero is like filling a sink with warm water, but pulling out the plug at the same time. If the taps are on too high then the sink will continue to fill – and will eventually overflow (much like the situation we are in right now). Net zero will only be reached once the taps are turned to down to a level where the amount of water flowing into the sink is the same as the amount draining down the plug hole. This means you will be free to continue using the sink filled with warm water with no worry of it ever overflowing.
Gross zero is a slightly different story. Gross zero would be like turning the taps off entirely to try and fix the problem of an overflowing sink. Although you now never have to worry about the sink overflowing, you now have none of the benefits of warm running water…
Gross zero is unrealistic and unobtainable in the real-world. Although it would solve the issue of climate change, it also means we would have to halt any and all emissions from any source. By aiming for net zero – it means we are free to continue enjoying things that produce emissions, but at a sustainable level.
We just need to turn down the taps a little first.
The UK will turn down the taps by 2050 – net zero
In June 2019 – the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to ensure net zero targets are met by 2050, ending their contribution to global warming emissions.
Previously, the target was set as at least an ‘80% reduction from 1990 levels’. It is encouraging to see such a strong statement of action to combat the problem of climate change. This reflects the changing attitudes towards building a more sustainable, green economy.
The UK has already had considerable success in reducing emissions by 42% while simultaneously growing the economy by 72% leading up to this, so it appears to be a likely target on the face of things. It is hoped that this policy can help grow ‘green collar jobs’ to 2 million and value of exports from the low-carbon economy to £170 billion annually by 2030.
It is difficult to assess progress towards this goal, as Covid19 has since brought the economy to its knees.
UK net zero, what does this mean for businesses?
If we are to reach this goal of net zero then we will all need to work together, this includes businesses taking steps to ensure emissions are kept at a suitable level. Emissions are already capped within the EU, and carbon-trading schemes place a financial burden on the worst corporate offenders while rewarding those who adhere. It is possible to read more about carbon trading here.
Government policy is great – but we won’t reach these lofty goals by policy alone. Developing a strong strategy to reach net zero should be a priority for your business. By getting on the path earlier rather than later allows for a gradual shift, rather than absolute blind panic on the 31st of December, 2049…
Full buy-in from senior management as-well as stakeholders is needed in order to push your business emissions towards net zero. This drive must be underpinned by strong data collection, monitoring, and reporting. In order to meet the increasing governmental and regulatory bodies demand for transparency, this is an absolute non-negotiable. Gone are the days of rough estimates and botch-job fixes.
But what would a business pushing towards net zero actually look like? What is required? We have included a basic action plan below:
- Commitment: Make a commitment to reducing emissions or waste to a certain level – this should be set at a realistic level.
- Data: Data collection systems are crucial in evaluating progress and overall success. The earlier you start collecting data, the better.
- Engagement: Talk to stakeholders within your business, communicate the reasons behind your decisions. Reach out to businesses that have already had success in the reduction of emissions, find out how others are succeeding.
- Opportunity: Your business is not alone in reaching for a reduction in emissions, there may be market opportunities now open to you as a result of your reduced emissions. Consumers are always on the look out for a more sustainable option to leave their conscious guilt-free.
- Action: Make a start, somewhere. For small businesses, it may be easier to focus on smaller, lower-cost solutions (like implementing timers on office lighting) rather than huge changes in the production process. For larger businesses, it may be worthwhile to investigate carbon offsetting to make an instant reduction in emissions.
UK net zero, what does this mean for cities?
It has been found by the UK Green Building Council that the built environment is responsible for around 40% of our total carbon footprint. It is likely that such a source of carbon emissions will likely face some huge changes on the way to net zero.
One such way in which we are able to immediately lower carbon emissions is by paying attention to the embodied carbon of a building. This is the emissions released from extracting, processing, manufacturing, packaging, and transporting the materials used – as well as construction, maintenance over the full lifespan, and what happens after demolition. Peter Clegg, the co-founder of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and an architect, has found that the most carbon emitted per cubic meter comes from building materials glass and steel, while brick, stone, and cross-laminated timber (CLT) release the least. This is improved further still if they are locally sourced.
Globally, steel is responsible for around 7% of all global carbon dioxide emissions and releases 12.2 tonnes of CO2 per cubic meter. Concrete, on the other hand, produces around 550kg per cubic meter used. Does this mean a switch to concrete universally is on the cards?
It is unlikely, as cement (the main ingredient to concrete) is responsible for 8% of global CO2 emissions. So where do we turn to?
It is likely that we will see a shift towards timber or timber-based construction in at least some elements of city-planning. This is because timber sequesters carbon during growth, lowering the overall carbon cost of the material. CLT is actually deemed to be a carbon negative material, so that for every cubic meter of CLT used, 600kg of CO2 is removed from the atmosphere. In combination to its quick construction time and reduced waste – CLT is also strong enough to be used structurally.
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