An in-depth exploration of the complexities and paradoxes of reaching net-zero by Félix Dubois-Aubecq, ESSEC MiM student and finalist in the CoBS 2022 CSR article competition.
Net-Zero Carbon Emissions: What prevents the world from reaching them by CoBS Editor Félix Dubois-Aubecq.
The concept of “net-zero carbon emissions“, or “net carbon dioxide emissions“, has been defined as the situation in which “anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period” . Understood this way, it leads to the cessation of CO2-induced warming when net anthropogenic CO2 emissions themselves halt: unless emissions subsequently decrease, CO2-induced surface warming would remain at its last achieved level, in the long term. Another consequence is that this concept does not cover other, less well understood drivers of global warming.
There are different interpretations of this concept. Originally a scientific concept, carbon neutrality emerged at the end of the 2000s when the question of how to curb the rise in global surface temperature due to CO2 emissions was raised. It then entered the field of climate policy, the Paris Agreement being a striking example, as it set the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. As such, carbon neutrality is part of the objective of containing global warming to +1.5°C. Buoyed by the narrative of this concept, over 120 countries have already adopted neutrality targets.
This is perhaps also its first obstacle: while it is widely adopted as a solution in climate policies, the concept is not yet well understood, whether in the scientific, political, or economic fields. As such, it is subsumed under the more general concept of “neutrality”, which can have at least six interpretations :
- Carbon neutrality per se;
- Net greenhouse gas emissions;
- Climate neutrality, which refers more broadly to the “state in which human activities result in no net effect on the climate system” ;
- Carbon neutrality, which refers to the sole emissions of a country, organisation or activity;
- Net greenhouse gas emissions at the country level;
- Negative net greenhouse gas emissions, which refers to a situation where “metric-weighted anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) removals exceed metric-weighted anthropogenic GHG emissions“.
This variability in the interpretation of net zero reflects the three main uncertainties surrounding it: uncertainties about the technical means; uncertainties about the way in which policies set targets and plans, both nationally and internationally; and uncertainties about the response of the private sector.
Net Zero and Scientific Uncertainties: A concept and implications still difficult to understand
Originally a scientific concept, achieving net zero carbon requires action in the political, social, and economic spheres, and involves ethical, technological, legal, and behavioural concerns. However, even before generalising solutions to achieve net zero carbon, it is necessary to consider that the concept is not fully understood and that solutions vary considerably between sectors.
Firstly, achieving net zero carbon emissions means tackling all emissions. So far, solutions have been found mainly in the energy sector (which generates 73.2% of carbon emissions ) through the development of clean energy . According to the IEA, the goal of zero CO2 emissions is even achievable in technological terms, thanks to a more efficient use of energy and the development of renewable energies .
In many countries, the cost of renewable energy has fallen so sharply that the transition to carbon-free electricity looks promising . A similar trend seems to exist in the automotive industry, with the development of electric vehicles, which the IEA estimates could reach 60% of global car sales by 2030 .
However, most sectors show more uncertainties in their transition to net zero carbon emissions, including mining, heavy industry, agriculture, food processing, aviation, and construction, where the issue is more difficult to address.
For example, the food and agriculture sectors have received little consideration on this point outside of deforestation issues, due to the complexity of the supply chain, the large number of actors, the fragile economic situation of agriculture and the need for low prices.
Solutions exist to combat emissions from this sector, which is responsible for about 10% of CO2 emissions , such as reducing the use of fossil energy sources in farm buildings and equipment; reducing the CO2 intensity of agricultural production; making better use of organic fertilisation and increasing the share of legumes in crop rotations; storing more organic carbon in soils by introducing intermediate and intercropping crops, crop associations or agroforestry systems; developing no-till techniques and optimising grassland management ; capturing CO2 emissions within plantations.
The latter solution is central to the goal of zero net carbon emissions, through the development of carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) technologies . The Carbfix project  in Iceland is an example of such developments, which aims to capture CO2 in rock underground.
However, concerns have been raised about the limits of our ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere, especially using biological carbon storage. For example, plantations of exotic tree species are sometimes used to capture CO2 emissions, which could cause hazards such as weather fluctuation or fire . Similarly, the use of natural carbon reservoirs such as the ocean, mineralisation, or soil carbon sequestration (as in the Carbfix project) still need more research to better understand their real efficiency . Lastly, their use could disturb more ecosystems already impacted by CO2 emissions, such as oceans which are jeopardised by their acidification.
The uncertainties surrounding the concept of net-zero emissions are not restrained to the development of scientific and technological solutions: they expand to the adoption of these solutions on a political level, by private companies and by individuals.
Net Zero and Uncertainties at the Political Level: A need for cooperation at national and local levels
“Emissions targets are a zero-sum game. If one country or company does less, other have to do more to achieve the same global temperature outcome” . From a public policy perspective, this reality for net-zero carbon emissions objectives means that at the international level, some countries lagging in meeting their carbon neutrality targets will have to be compensated by additional efforts from other countries. At the national level, the situation is the same: some localities will have to make up for the delay of others in reaching their targets. Otherwise, carbon neutrality is not possible.
This reality raises two key questions for public policy: the timing of carbon neutrality targets; and the extent and the content of those targets.
However, the first question has rarely been discussed and studied. In particular, each of the countries that decided to adopt carbon neutrality targets set their objectives according to a different timescale than the others, following the signing of the Paris Agreements. While most countries have set the target in the same terms as the agreements, i.e. by 2050, it is notable that Brazil, China, India and Ukraine have decided to push it back to 2060. Some countries, such as Singapore, have not even defined a specific date. Other countries have adopted dates that are even closer: 2045 for Germany and Sweden; 2040 for Iceland and Austria; 2035 for Finland; 2030 for the Maldives.
The difference in timing is not the main problem. The IEA’s strategy for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050  is based on the idea that the most advanced countries, which are also the ones generating the most CO2, should achieve this goal before the developing countries. The compensation between the two should then guarantee carbon neutrality. It is therefore the lack of coordination that is disturbing, especially as the question of the timescale has never really been studied or discussed.
As for the second question, the objectives in terms of carbon neutrality are not equivalent between countries. On this point, two types of targets can be distinguished: objectives aimed at all the country’s economic sectors; objectives restricted to certain sectors. For example, Sweden does not include emissions from the land use, land-use change and forestry sector in its carbon neutrality policy. Most countries have also excluded international aviation and shipping from their policies, except for the United Kingdom.
Furthermore, the vagueness surrounding the very concept of carbon neutrality already defined above impacts public policies: not all countries understand it in the same way. For example, some countries have restricted the neutrality objective to CO2 emissions alone, while others, such as New Zealand, include a variety of selected greenhouse gases (the New Zealand Government includes all greenhouse gases, except biogenic methane).
Finally, some countries appear to be more advanced than others in terms of governance methods, including cooperation between national and local levels, as in the case of France with Paris, Denmark, and Sweden.
In the end, the lack of cooperation between the various political actors and the lack of studies on the impacts of such cooperation thus appear to be the main political obstacle to achieving the carbon neutrality objectives, along with the absence of climate policy in many states.
Net Zero and Uncertainties for Private Companies and Individuals: A need for lifestyle change
The problem for companies is similar to that encountered in public policies: the efforts of companies to achieve carbon neutrality will only be effective to the extent that initiatives are not isolated; the efforts of some will have to compensate for the delays of others. However, as described above, not all sectors are equal in this respect: while the energy sector and the automotive industry appear promising, heavy industry, raw material extraction, aviation, agriculture, and the agri-food sector are more difficult to address.
Above all, their actions in this area are intrinsically linked to consumer behaviour. For companies to be more inclined to initiate carbon neutral policies, it is necessary that consumers are inclined to change their lifestyles and, if they are already inclined, do so . Indeed, even though companies are responsible for a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions (for example, in France, 30% of CO2 emissions come from companies in the energy and industrial sectors) and the services and products are offered by these companies, it is still necessary for consumers to decide to adopt a lifestyle that is more compatible with achieving carbon neutrality.
For example, carbon neutrality in the transport sector will require the adoption of new vehicles, new mobility services and a new urbanisation more adapted to the development of shared services. However, consumers must be willing to adopt these new services, otherwise the company’s efforts will remain a dead letter and could threaten its profitability. Another example: since food is a matter of personal decision by consumers, a return to a less meaty and more local diet can only be achieved through changes in consumer consumption patterns.
Here, companies are essentially faced with the challenge of dialogue with consumers. On the one hand, consumption patterns are changing slowly. On the other hand, companies are sometimes reluctant to get involved in environmental issues – because of the complexity of these issues both technically and in terms of communication. Therefore, the slowness of these changes appears to be the main obstacle to the goal of carbon neutrality in the private sector.
Carbon neutrality thus appears to be a concept still difficult to understand. Whatever the will of Governments, companies, and individuals, it remains subject to a scientific knowledge still uncertain as to its implications. As it is part of a complex societal environment, it is also subject to public policies that are still uncoordinated, to slow lifestyle changes and to business uncertainties. The challenges are therefore immense, and success is far from assured.
A full list of footnotes and sources used in this article can be found here.
- Link up with Félix on LinkedIn
- Read a related article: Getting Net Zero right
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