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What Does Net Zero Carbon Mean?

What is net zero carbon, why does it matter, and how can we get there?

March 17, 2021

In January 2021, the United States re-joined the Paris Agreement, the first global pact for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One of the key tenets of the Paris Accord is achieving net zero carbon emissions by mid-century to ward off the worst effects of climate change. But exactly what does "net zero carbon" mean?


Achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide included, requires reaching stasis. There could be a certain level of emissions still occurring, but they would have to be offset by an ongoing removal of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This would require a balancing act that couples reducing and removing harmful emissions that absorb and emit radiant energy which causes dangerous planetary warming.


For many countries and organizations, net zero carbon is a goal on the path to becoming “carbon negative.” 


Net Zero Does Not Require Zero Carbon Emissions

As an illustration of what is meant by net negative, bathtubs are often used as an analogy. To visualize net zero carbon, think of a partially filled bathtub where the drain is open, but the spout is still adding water-if the drain is taking water away at the same speed the water is being added, the level of the water in the bathtub does not change.


This is what is meant by net zero carbon-it does not require carbon emissions to reach zero, only for carbon to be removed at the same rate that emissions occur.


Major Steps to Reduce Carbon Emissions

The first half of the net zero energy equation is slowing down carbon emissions (the faucet in the bathtub metaphor). Many of the solutions for reducing carbon emissions and accelerating our transition away from fossil fuels rely on technological innovation and advancement - much of which we have today - while others simply require behavioral changes.


There are a wide variety of steps - some bigger than others -- that can contribute to reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Some examples include:

  1. Invest in clean energy and energy efficiency. 
    Clean energy is derived from renewable sources, including solar and wind. Energy efficiency measures, from insulation to high-efficiency heaters and chillers, reduce energy use.
  2. Reftrofit buildings. 
    Retrofitting is the practice of modernizing buildings to make them more efficient. According to the United Nations Environment Program, buildings and their construction account for 36 percent of global energy use and 39 percent of energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions worldwide.
  3. Decarbonize cement, steel and plastics. 
    According to Vox, 10 percent of global emissions comes from high-intensity heat required to make cement and steel. To put that in perspective, this is more than the carbon dioxide emissions of all the world's cars and planes combined.
  4. Shift to electric vehicles
    All-electric vehicles produce zero direct carbon dioxide emissions.
  5. Increase public transportation. 
    Getting individual commuters onto public transportation reduces fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. As public fleets transition to EVs, the emissions reduction becomes even more prominent.
  6. Halt deforestation. 
    According to the United Nations, deforestation and desertification - caused by human activities and climate change - pose major challenges to sustainable development and have affected the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.


Carbon Removal: The Next Step

But emissions reduction alone will not achieve net zero carbon soon unless combined with carbon removal. Reaching net zero carbon requires removing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from the environment. Again, technology holds part of the solution, with direct air capture and storage topping the list.


But land-based approaches, particularly planting trees, reforestation at scale, and increasing soil's ability to capture carbon, are also potent weapons in the net zero carbon arsenal.


BlackRock: The Opportunity of the Net Zero Energy Transition

In January 2021, on the heels of the U.S. re-entry into the Paris Accord, Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, issued his widely anticipated annual "Letter to CEOs." In it, he describes "The Opportunity of the Net Zero Transition":


There is no company whose business model won't be profoundly affected by the transition to a net zero economy - one that emits no more carbon dioxide than it removes from the atmosphere by 2050, the scientifically-established threshold necessary to keep global warming well below 2°C. As the transition accelerates, companies with a well-articulated long-term strategy, and a clear plan to address the transition to net zero, will distinguish themselves with their stakeholders - with customers, policymakers, employees, and shareholders - by inspiring confidence that they can navigate this global transformation...


It's important to recognize that having a net zero target demands a transformation of the entire economy. Scientists agree that in order to meet the Paris Agreement goal of containing global warming to "well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial averages" by 2100, human-produced emissions need to decline by 8-10% annually between 2020 and 2050 and achieve 'net zero' by mid-century.


Fink is not alone in seeing net zero carbon as the opportunity of the millennium, one that will separate winning businesses and institutions from those that fail to meet the existential challenge of becoming carbon neutral. In September 2020, the European Corporate Leaders Group wrote a letter, signed initially by 170 CEOs (the number surged to 200 by December), urging the EU to up its commitment to net zero carbon, insisting that businesses across manufacturing, heavy industry, finance, consumer goods, power generation and technology reduce carbon emissions by 55% by 2030, citing that:


The right decisions now can help create and protect healthy, thriving and fair communities and secure a roadmap for a prosperous economy. From a business and investor perspective, clarity on the net zero transition pathway and timetables for each sector, as well as policy that enables substantial investments in carbon neutral solutions is essential. This in turn would provide us with the confidence needed to invest decisively at the necessary pace and scale to reduce emissions, create decent green jobs, drive innovation, and accelerate the rebuilding of a resilient zero carbon economy.


This call to carbon neutrality paralleled that made by more than 40 of the largest U.S. corporations, including Amazon, Citigroup, and Ford Motor Co., in December 2020, urging newly elected President Biden to rejoin the Paris Accord.


Net Zero Carbon: Getting It Done

Today, governments, businesses, and individual consumers have more tools at their disposal than at any time in history to get greener, adopt renewable energy solutions and reduce their fossil-fuel consumption and carbon footprint. At Enel X, we are working on the front lines of innovation and implementation as our customers around the world adopt our demand responsesolar + storagerenewable energysustainability, and EV charging stations solutions to drive their businesses, and the world, towards a net zero carbon goal.


For an overview of Enel X carbon-reducing and carbon net zero-enhancing solutions in action, please download our "Best Projects of 2020" report.