More companies pledge ‘net-zero’ emissions to fight climate change, but what does that really mean?

Synopsis: “Net-zero emissions” is in the news, and government leaders and CEOs are under pressure to discuss as to how they’ll reduce their countries’ or businesses’ impact on climate change.


Amazon, just announced that more than 200 companies have now joined its Climate Pledge, committing to reach net-zero emissions by 2040.

What does net-zero emissions actually mean?

Net-zero emissions: It’s like balancing a check book. The country or company cuts most of its emissions through efficiency and clean energy, then offsets the rest by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or eliminating emissions elsewhere.

How companies claim net-zero emissions?

Carbon credits: Taking advantage of carbon reductions elsewhere by buying carbon credits and supporting sustainable development projects, such as installing wind or solar power in poorer countries.

For example, a U.S. company might pay to protect forests in South America and then subtract those trees’ negative emissions from its own emissions to say that its operations are “net-zero.”

Then, why carbon credits draw criticism?

Emission reduction is not permanent: it allows those companies to keep generating greenhouse gases.

Administrative issues: credits might get double-counted by more than one entity. Some projects, like tree planting, can take years to pay off in emissions reductions while the companies buying forest offsets continue emitting greenhouse gases.

Not sufficient: Several countries, including the United States, have pledged to meet the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. But when the U.N. analyzed each country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement, it found they still fall short by so much that even if every pledge is met, temperatures will rise about 2.7 C this century.

Why do net-zero emissions matter?

Global warming: Greenhouse gases trap heat near Earth’s surface. When their concentrations get too high, they fuel global warming.

Paris deal: To keep warming under 1.5 C with the least disruption, the United Nations says the world needs to be on a path to reach net-zero emissions by about 2050.

Climate risks: Global warming today is just over 1 C (1.8 F) above preindustrial levels, and rising seas and extreme weather are already a problem.

How companies can achieve net-zero emissions?

Ramp up energy efficiency: Improvements in insulation and equipment can reduce the amount of energy needed or wasted.

Switch from fossil fuels: shifting to renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, that doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions. Once the company’s electricity is renewable, using electric delivery vehicles further cuts emissions.

Finding negative emissions: It might be too expensive or not yet technologically possible to replace steam boiler with a carbon-neutral product. In that case companies purchase carbon credits that would remove the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere that would be generated by the boiler.

What is the way forward?

Firstly, keeping global warming to 1.5 C will require negative greenhouse gas emissions.

Secondly, focus on making home and buildings extremely energy-efficient and relying on heating and electricity from clean energy sources.

Thirdly, there needs to be a consistent trajectory of improvements and accountability mechanism, not just promises and carbon offsets.

Source: This post is based on the article “More companies pledge ‘net-zero’ emissions to fight climate change, but what does that really mean?” published in Down To Earth on 22nd September 2021.

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