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In Simple Terms: What Does Net Zero Mean?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that we all need to take action to fight climate change. On an individual level, that might mean reducing your meat intake or how you use transport, whereas for businesses, it’s very on trend to set a ‘net zero target’ - to help the national effort in reducing carbon emissions. But what does net zero actually mean? Why is it necessary and how can we all play a part?


 Net Zero Climate Change Series &Keep


Under the Paris Agreement (a legally binding international treaty on climate change) many countries have agreed to limit warming to below 2°C - with experts stressing ideally at 1.5°C. The latest global temperature increase recorded in 2020 was 1.02°C, which has created urgency for countries to set net zero emissions targets. Therefore if we want to limit warming to 1.5°C, CO2 emissions must reach net-zero by 2050 at the latest.

But what does ‘Net Zero’ actually mean? It means achieving a balance between the carbon emitted into the atmosphere, and the carbon removed from it. Many people ask why countries don’t set a gross-zero target, which would involve trying to remove all emissions. However this is unfortunately unrealistic. Therefore a net-zero target recognises there will be some emissions that need to be offset.

A helpful analogy to use here is comparing the atmosphere to a bath. Imagine the water flowing out is carbon emissions, and you’re able to balance the level by either turning the taps up or down. You’re also able to drain the same amount of water down the plughole, which would represent carbon removal. If we want to achieve net zero in the UK, emissions across many different business sectors will need to be cut. But if you look at the bath analogy, there will be some sectors - like aviation - where emissions will be too expensive to cut out altogether. 

Therefore these remaining emissions will need to go down the plug - and at the moment we heavily rely on offsetting these emissions through nature. Oceans and forests are two of the main natural carbon sinks. However, in the future changing how we use our land and the development of new technologies looks promising for carbon capture and storage.

If a business sets a ‘net-zero’ target, they’re expected to cut emissions in line with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. If you’re a business-owner, you may be thinking “where do I even begin”. That’s why we've created a Net Zero Business Toolkit to help you map out various areas of your business operations, where a reduction or removal pathway must be considered.

For corporates, there are a number of benefits of setting a net zero target, which include: 

  • enhanced credibility and brand reputation
  • the ability to drive innovation and create competitive advantage
  • increased resilience given likely future regulation
  • increased investor confidence

Whilst the term Net Zero is often used to describe businesses, you as a person can reduce your carbon footprint and make your contribution to keeping climate change to an absolute minimum. Read more about that in our What’s Your Carbon Footprint article.