What does net zero emissions mean?

09.07.20 By
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After dragging its feet on climate change, the Australian Federal Government has finally commited to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, as has much of the rest of the world. Almost all advanced economies have now strengthened their 2030 targets and committed to roughly halving their emissions this decade. 

The important thing to remember is that net zero targets mean little without a concrete plan to cut emissions this decade. The lion’s share of emissions cuts need to occur this decade if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. A net zero target is also fundamentally incompatible with new coal or gas. All gas and coal expansion must stop. 

The question we need to be asking is: what concrete steps will the Federal Government be taking in the 2020s to cut emissions as quickly as possible, and get us on the pathway to net zero?

What does net zero emissions mean?

‘Net zero emissions’ refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere. Think of it like a set of scales: producing greenhouse gas emissions tips the scales, and we want to get those scales back into balance, which means no more greenhouse gas can be added to the atmosphere in any given year than is taken out. 

Eventually, we will probably need to tip them the other way to repair past harm. Once we stop emitting greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, we still need to deal with all the emissions we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere over the years. 

Getting to net zero means we can still produce some emissions, as long as they are offset by processes that reduce greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. For example, these could be things like planting new forests, or drawdown technologies like direct air capture. The more emissions that are produced, the more carbon dioxide we need to remove from the atmosphere (this is called sequestration) to reach net zero. 

However, to avoid a climate catastrophe, new emissions of greenhouse gas must be as low as possible. In other words, we need to get as close as possible to a real zero and only rely on offsetting when it is absolutely necessary.  This means that we need to rapidly phase out fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – and transition to renewable energy.

Why is net zero emissions important?

Climate change isn’t a tap we can turn off once we stop using fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide, the main contributor to climate change, will stay in the atmosphere and keep heating the planet for years and years. 

So reducing greenhouse gas emissions is hugely important, but we can’t stop there. The end goal is to balance the scales again, and restore the global climate to pre-climate change levels. To get there, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero AND then get cracking on repairing past harm by drawing down past emissions.

What does a good net zero emissions target look like?

Based on the guide developed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), there are key measures that need to be used to determine whether a net zero target measures up: 

​​Is it about now? 

> Reducing emissions this decade is critical if we are to avoid locking in the most catastrophic impact.  Any long term net zero target must also be complemented by an interim target

Is there a credible plan? 

> Any net zero target must be accompanied by a clear plan of immediate and longer term action, and must not just rely on offsetting 

Is it fast enough? 

> The target must reduce emissions quickly enough this decade and ensure our nation is doing its fair share

Can we see progress? 

> Will the target be reported on publicly at least annually?

Will it cover all emissions? 

> The target must cover all greenhouse gases and cover all sectors of the economy

Based on the latest science, the Climate Council recommends Australia should cut our emissions by 75% by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2035. This gives us the best chance of avoiding catastrophic climate consequences. An important first step would be matching the commitments from our key allies, and pledging – before Glasgow – to at least halve our emissions by 2030.

How can Australia achieve net zero emissions?

We already have the technology we need to accelerate towards net zero emissions, including replacing coal- and gas-fired power stations with cheap, clean and reliable renewable energy backed by storage technologies. 

Australia has unrivalled potential for renewable energy, clean industries, and clean jobs. Climate leadership from states and territories has shown us what works, and the benefits that decarbonizing our economy can bring benefits like regional jobs, cleaner cities and cheaper power. The Federal Government should be working with other tiers of government to rapidly step up this work.

To reach net zero we need to stop all gas and coal expansion. It is vital that we replace all fossil fuels use as quickly as possible, meet all of our energy needs with renewables and take concrete action to restore damaged landscapes, promote resilience of those living on the land and repair past harm to the atmosphere. Doing this will reduce new emissions of greenhouse gas to as close to zero as possible, and remove the greenhouse gases we put there in the past.

At a federal level, Australia lacks credible climate and renewable energy policy to drive us towards that future, and our emission reduction targets are inadequate to meet our Paris climate commitments. What’s more, our exported emissions (in the form of coal and gas) are about 2.5 times higher than our domestic emissions. While these are not counted on Australia’s ledger, it’s still worsening climate change.

Why is everyone talking about net zero emissions targets all of a sudden?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report was described as a code red for humanity. This report made it clear to the world’s governments the vital importance of getting to net zero as fast as possible and setting strong interim targets. This has seen many more governments — local, state and national — around the world set their own net zero goals. 

Many of Australia’s key trading partners and strategic allies, have now set net zero emissions targets. The US, EU, UK, and Japan have all committed to net zero emissions by 2050, and China has committed to net zero by 2060. And now, after dragging its feet for decades, Australia has announced a net zero emissions target of 2050. 

Sadly, impacts will still worsen after we reach net zero due to the inertia in the climate system.  Net zero describes the point in time when humans stop worsening climate change.

When does Australia need to reach net zero emissions?

Every new tonne of greenhouse gas is heating the planet further. The sooner the world stops adding greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, the better.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to honour the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to well below 2 degrees (and pursue efforts to limit that increase to only 1.5 degrees!), global carbon emissions should reach net zero by 2050 at the latest. Over 100 countries have already pledged to do this. 

However on its own, reaching net zero in 2050 is nowhere near enough. To help limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees, the whole world would need to reduce emissions by 7% per year every single year between 2020 and 2030. Even limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees would require annual global reductions of greenhouse gas emissions of 2.6% percent per year.

Australia, given our very high emissions, our wealth, and our unrivaled potential for renewable energy, should go above and beyond this. The Climate Council recommends Australia reduce its emissions by 75% by 2030, and reach zero emissions by 2035, to play its part in avoiding catastrophic climate consequences.  

Unfortunately, Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world. We are nowhere near on track to meet our weak 2030 target, which is insufficient to meet the internationally agreed temperature goals. On top of this, Australia lacks a credible climate policy. Australia is a big emitter, but we have some of the best renewable resources in the world. Net zero by 2050 is a starting point, but we should be aiming to hit net zero as soon as possible.

Fortunately, despite Federal Government inaction, every single Australian state and territory has a formal target to reach net zero by 2050. Now, we need to step things up.

Have any other countries/states reached net zero emissions already?

At time of writing, thirteen countries have a net-zero target in place by law, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, France and Canada. Two – Suriname and Bhutan – have already achieved net zero emissions.. 

Closer to home, we have an entire state that has been net zero in certain years. In 2014 and 2018, Tasmania’s emissions dropped below net zero. Two things allowed this to happen: Tasmania’s massive hydroelectric dams, and Tasmania’s large carbon-dense forests. With the state’s electricity supply already nearing 100% renewable, the remaining emissions from the state – across transport, manufacturing, agriculture and forestry – were offset by the greenhouse gases sucked out of the atmosphere by the state’s forests. Tasmania has work to do to make this permanent, and could easily move beyond net zero to provide an overall benefit to the world by doing more to reduce its fossil fuel consumption, but it starts from an excellent position.

Is having a net zero emissions target an effective way of tackling climate change?

A target is only as good as the policies underpinning it. Australia’s states and territories all have net zero targets, but most governments have not outlined how these targets will be met. Several governments with a net zero goal, such as Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, are still increasing their emissions each year. Even governments that are leading the pack when it comes to climate action – like South Australia and the ACT –  still have more work to do to outline how they will meet their net zero goals. On top of this, no matter what domestic emissions are, it is not possible for a government to be taking climate change seriously while continuing to support fossil fuels – especially if that government is increasing fossil fuel exports.