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What is Net Zero? Is it a dangerous concept?

The term net-zero has become quite mainstream in the climate change discussion, but what does net-zero actually mean? And, more importantly, is going net-zero enough? To talk about this we have to go back to the basics: what is the difference between net and gross?

Gross emissions: refer to the whole of something;
Net emissions: refer to a part of a whole following some reduction.

In this case, net-zero emissions means reducing our emissions to zero - but with a caveat. Net-zero, or any net reductions in emissions mean that we reduce our emissions but not to zero, we reduce our emissions to an extent at which the rest of the emissions can be removed by carbon sinks. Carbon sinks are natural (oceans and forests) and artificial deposits that absorb and capture CO2 from the atmosphere. For example, in 2019, the oceans removed 12 per cent of total emissions from the atmosphere. Put simply, we reach net zero when the amount we add is no more than that we remove. Other terms point to the different ways in which emissions and sinks can be accounted for in this context (i.e. climate neutral & carbon neutral).

This means that net-zero does not necessarily mean a complete end to CO2 emissions; the ones that remain will have to be offseted. Net zero also acts as a frame of reference through which global action against climate change can be structured.

Climate Pledges

The Paris Agreement has left it to countries to define their own emissions pathways or nationally determined contributions to global net zero. More than 120 countries have pledged to reach net zero by around 2050 (some have pledged to reach net zero by 2060).

  • £620m in grants for electric vehicles and charging points, plus £350m to help the transition from petrol

  • Grants of up to £5,000 for householders to install low-carbon heat pumps

  • £120m to develop small nuclear reactors (no announcement on the go-ahead for the Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk)

  • £625m for tree planting and peat restoration

  • More money for carbon capture and storage hubs

This is described as perhaps one of the most robust pledges according to several analysts. Despite this, the UK government continues to cut slack for fossil projects in North Sea that inevitably come in direct contradiction to the abovementioned pledges and the goal for net-zero.

You can explore this using the Net Zero Tracker developed by Oxford here.

Is the concept ‘dangerous’?

Holly Jean Buck describes in her book “Ending Fossil Fuels” two scenarios; a cleaner fossil world and a near zero world. In the former, we have achieved net zero through carbon capturing and the latter we have achieved net zero by reducing CO2 after getting rid of fossil fuels. Some have argued that the idea of net zero has made way of a “recklessly cavalier ‘burn now, pay later’ approach.” The removal of CO2 from the atmosphere is not necessarily wrong or dangerous in itself; instead, it creates a mentality that I believe is comparable to ‘out of sight of out of mind’, effectively serving a “blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels.” Dr Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions told Forbes that “the world will be net negative once removal exceeds emissions. If it takes us more than a decade or two to lower the level of CO2, we definitely will have overshot our targets and will need to maintain net negative emissions for decades into the future.” Ambitious net-zero pledges essentially rely on unproven carbon capturing technology which on its own may be described as a superficial operational shift rather than a systemic change. Almost like placing a plaster on a wound that needs stitches.

Understanding the conceptual and practical differences between net zero and net negative is critical in the climate change discourse as this is becoming a handy framework for scrutinising governmental policies and their coherence.


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