What is net zero? | The Economist

climate change has a new poster boy companies from british airways to facebook and pop artists like billy eilish and massive attack have promised to make changes to bring their greenhouse gas emissions closer to net zero they're joining a club of more than 50 countries around the world this race to zero is a vital step towards managing climate change but what does net zero really mean and is achieving it even possible [Music] net zero has gone viral but like all simple slogans the reality of achieving it is far more complicated humans burning fossil fuels has resulted in more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is warming the planet [Music] to stop the warming the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has to stop rising [Music] the obvious way to do that is to stop emitting them but that's easier said than done for some industries such as aviation and manufacturing eliminating emissions is really hard in the years leading up to the copenhagen climate conference in 2009 scientists realized something it wasn't possible to cut emissions fast and thoroughly enough to meet the temperature targets that policy makers wanted what was needed was to actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere too people began to talk about a world in which greenhouse gas emissions and greenhouse gas removals balanced each other out so that the overall effect was net zero the countries that signed up to the paris agreement pledged to turn this idea into reality by agreeing to balance their emissions and removal of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century to achieve net zero emissions we need to do two things one which is more obvious is to cut our output of greenhouse gas emissions from things like burning fossil fuels but the other is actually to take emissions out of the air and that's the harder and sometimes more obscure aspect of getting to net zero this is known as negative emissions and the scale on which they might be required is one reason that net zero targets will be hard to achieve we'll need to go from a world economy that pumps out on the order of 40 billion tons of co2 a year to one that sucks down that is removes billions of tons per year in the future to get to that net zero future there's different ways to do this forests do this naturally through biological processes or sinks but what we're really looking at now to achieve ambitious climate targets are man-made approaches some methods for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere are already being used at scale such as the planting of new forests and improving soil so it can store more carbon but there are new technologies at a much earlier stage of development among them ways of capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground carbon dioxide could be poured directly from the air by machines or by growing plants burning them to generate electricity and then capturing the carbon dioxide as they burn there's a flurry of innovation in negative emissions technologies a range of ambitious to wacky and none of them are proven at scale and that's what makes them so problematic the world is counting on innovations that have not yet been demonstrated at scale to achieve targets that we're setting for ourselves and that's a big question mark we're hopeful but it is still a risky bet how much greenhouse gas needs to be removed from the atmosphere will depend on how much emissions can be cut the conundrum that is we need both massive reductions in emissions as well as a dramatic scale up and proving of the technologies for negative emissions there is a tension between the two and it's easy for governments and industries to kick the can down the road saying well let's go a little slower on the cutting of emissions now which will be better for the economy or for our profits because we can always make massive negative emissions reductions later when innovation makes those technologies cheaper and better the dirty little secret in that argument is that it may come too late and it may well give permission for polluters to get away with polluting much more than need be rather than innovating ways to reduce emissions now there's also the question of who takes responsibility for each molecule of greenhouse gas one of the most difficult challenges is that lots of countries and companies and individuals don't want to own up to their carbon footprint for example carbon intensive countries like india china other emerging markets that are producing enormous amounts of emissions today they point out that the goods they produce for example may be consumed by americans or europeans so they should do the negative emissions or they may say rich countries got rich putting carbon dioxide into the air now it's our turn to lift our people out of poverty so you pay for the negative emissions as yet there is no universal policy for accounting for and attributing emissions today governmental net zero pledges cover over two thirds of the global economy america and the eu are working towards a target of net zero by 2050 and president xi of china the world's largest emitter has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

Some people see ambitious climate targets and say fantastic the problem's getting solved here's the problem a target is no guarantee that we're going to get to the goal it's important to have targets it binds society together it gives you a direction in which policy is going to go it gives investors and markets some idea and some degree of certainty as to what investments to make however we often fall short of targets also we should remember most government policies focus on cutting emissions rather than how to tackle negative emissions embracing enacting and scaling a negative emissions plan to get to net zero is a herculean task this is something far bigger than say the moon shot or other initiatives that it's often compared to because this involves really every economy on earth every government ultimately every citizen all of us have to be involved and change the way we live and it's not just a technological revolution we need a revolution in our mindsets i'm vijay vadis warren the economist global energy and climate innovation editor to keep up to date with all of our climate change coverage please click on the link thanks for watching and don't forget to subscribe [Music]

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