This is a guide to the Net Zero concept: its meaning, how it is achieved, limits, and a more ambitious alternative.

6 minutes

The scientific community agrees that the current climate crisis is caused by human activities that emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere, raising the global average temperature.

It’s crucial to note that to limit temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C – in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement – global emissions should reach net zero (Net Zero) by 2050. But what exactly does Net Zero mean?

What does Net Zero mean?

Net Zero is a situation where the difference between greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere and those removed from the atmosphere is zero.

To better understand what the Net Zero goal means, it may be helpful to break the concept down into its two component words.

“Zero” refers to a situation in which greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are eliminated entirely. However, this is an impossible outcome to achieve. Indeed, some sectors are so-called hard-to-abate—such as aviation and shipping—whose emissions cannot be eliminated for the time being and will remain significant sources of greenhouse gases even under the most optimistic scenarios.

These hard-to-abate emissions—which we will call residual—must be neutralised by removing the same amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This is precisely why we talk about “Net Zero” emissions and not just “Zero Emissions.”

With the Green Deal, the European Union also has Net Zero among its goals: it aspires to achieve zero climate impact in 2050, committing by 2030 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent (compared to 1990 levels) and planting 3 billion new trees in the European territory.

How is the Net Zero goal achieved?

The Net Zero goal can be considered either globally, as we have done so far, or declined in the context of the individual company or organisation.

In fact, every company can embark on a path toward a Net Zero goal: Science Based Targets initiative—benchmark for organisations that want to set science-based emission reduction targets—outlines a pathway that unfolds on an annual basis and involves three steps:

  1. Set precise gross emission reduction targets within the value chain: annual emission reductions in line with the trajectory that keeps global temperature rise within the 1.5°C maximum threshold are required;
  2. Offset emissions through avoidance, performed by supporting projects beyond the value chain: an optional ambitious activity for companies that choose to support projects that provide positive climate and nature impacts;
  3. Neutralising residual emissions as companies approach the technological limit and their Net Zero goal by supporting removal projects.
How is the Net Zero goal achieved?

Offsetting emissions: the difference between avoidance and removal

In the previous section, we mentioned two different ways of offsetting emissions: avoidance and removal. It may be useful to clarify their differences.

Let us first establish that offsetting refers to the reduction of a company’s carbon footprint, which is achieved by funding another organisation that carries out projects to prevent or remove greenhouse gas emissions.

Emission avoidance is the elimination or replacement of an activity that produces greenhouse gas emissions. For example, a company may offset its emissions by financing the installation of a wind farm, without which energy would have been produced from coal, or by financing the protection of a forest, which otherwise would have been cleared.

Emissions removal consists of a series of activities that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. There are a number of technologies (Carbon Dioxide Removal or CDR) and practices that allow, for example, carbon dioxide to be removed from the atmosphere and stored permanently in vegetation, soil, geological formations, the ocean, or even in special storage facilities. Reforestation projects are among the removal activities.

Avoidance activities, therefore, do not reduce the levels of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, which is performed by removal actions, but more simply, prevent them from increasing further.

To emphasise this difference, we prefer to speak of the emissions neutralisation in the case of removal and offsetting when talking about avoidance.

Net Zero or Carbon Neutral: what changes?

The concept of Net Zero is often used synonymously with Carbon Neutral. However, the two terms differ in some respects.

A company can define itself as carbon neutral without setting emission reduction targets, merely measuring its impact and offsetting its emissions annually. In the Net Zero goal, on the other hand, priority is given to reducing emissions.

Moreover, to achieve the carbon-neutral goal, it is not necessary to prefer investing in removal projects, but it can also be achieved by merely offsetting by supporting avoidance-only projects.

In recent years, the Net Zero standard has been replacing Carbon Neutrality, as it is supported by a more scientifically reliable methodology.

In summary, the Net Zero goal is more ambitious in that it first requires the reduction of emissions-over the entire value chain-and includes the neutralisation of residual emissions through removal projects.

Beyond Net Zero target

In the Net Zero goal, only greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts are considered. But it is now well known that anthropogenic activities also have negative effects on the health of the Planet, leading to the ecological crisis involving Earth’s ecosystems.

In 2009, with the “Planetary Boundaries” study, 9 fundamental processes of the global natural system (linked to 9 environmental impacts) were identified, and the relevant thresholds were defined, delimiting a safe space for humanity to thrive, beyond which we risk irreversibly changing the ecological state of the Planet. Our development path is on a collision course with the stability of the global natural system: to date, 6 out of 9 planetary limits have been exceeded.

Thus, it becomes necessary to set a global goal to keep global warming below 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels, but one that also includes restoring nature. This goal exists, and it is called Nature Positive. It aims to unite all countries with a shared ambition to reverse the loss of nature by 2030.

Net Zero: what can companies do?

A structured climate responsibility journey starts with measuring the company’s impacts, monitoring them year by year, and reducing them to be in line with climate science.

We can guide companies on this path to achieve Net Zero, but also toward more ambitious goals. In fact, our approach is designed to go beyond neutrality and Net Zero goal to create benefits for the environment.

We explained our approach in a video:

We help companies learn about and mitigate the risks that threaten their business and make a positive impact by participating in projects to protect the environment and people’s well-being, supporting forestry projects that regenerate ecosystems and protect nature. In this, companies can contribute to a climate positive and nature positive future.