What is net zero and how to achieve it effectively

September 22, 2022
Written by
Pierre-Louis Lemaire
What is net zero and how to achieve it effectively
Table of contents

What is net zero

Net zero explained

What does the term "net zero emissions" really mean? When an entity, whether a state, region, or company, emits an amount of carbon emissions equal to that, it offsets with carbon sinks (e.g., forests, wetlands, oceans). An entity can only achieve a "net zero" state by considering emissions from all of its activities (e.g., scopes 1, 2, and 3).

As the climate crisis progresses, it becomes increasingly critical that companies and governments understand why it is essential to achieve net zero and how to do so effectively.

To achieve net zero emissions, companies must prioritize reducing the carbon intensity of their value chain as well as their overall carbon footprint. We have no other choice if we are to align with the goals of the Paris Agreements and prevent the global temperature from rising over 1.5°C. Only when all possible reductions have been achieved should companies invest in quality carbon offsets to remove the remaining emissions.  A company or state can then proudly claim that it has achieved net zero emissions.

What are the differences between carbon neutral and net zero

Carbon neutrality, an older notion that is frequently used by businesses, is less well defined than net zero and focuses more on carbon compensation. As a result, many companies declare themselves "carbon neutral" already. However, it is unclear if this neutrality refers to actual emission reductions along the value chain or the purchase of carbon credits.

Since there are no clear definitions for carbon neutrality, and despite honest efforts from companies to actually reduce their emissions, “carbon neutral” remains a term associated with greenwashing. A company can claim that a product or service is "carbon neutral" only by offsetting the Scope 1 and 2 emissions associated with that product or service at a single point in time. While this is not an outright lie, it does not demonstrate a genuine effort on the company's part to help address the climate crisis but rather a desire to take advantage of environmentally conscious consumers by misleading them.

Instead, achieving "net zero" involves an overall reduction in a company's carbon emissions throughout its value chain, in addition to long-term certified carbon offsets. As more companies achieve net zero emissions, we increase our chances of staying below the projected 1.5°C temperature rise.

Why is it essential to achieve net zero emissions

Reaching a sustainable economy is by far the most considerable challenge our society must tackle this century, or even before the 2050s if we want to keep our planet livable. To reach true sustainability, we inevitably need to radically change our ways of doing business: to emit less and less carbon dioxide and minimize our ecological footprint, decreasing the constant pressure we put on the environment.

Achieving net zero emissions is an ambitious goal in such a short time, but sadly, it is our only option. While some industries have high margins to reduce their carbon emissions and ecological footprint, others will face more significant challenges in transitioning from their current practices (e.g., agriculture, aviation). That’s why we must focus on achieving net zero emissions collectively, meaning some companies and organizations must contribute one step further. In contrast, others will need to question the necessity of some of their activities or even the core of their business model.

From an economic point of view, global warming is already a disaster. Year after year, climate catastrophes weaken our food production, make energy highly expensive and destroy our infrastructures. This is happening while we are “only” at a +1.1°C global temperature increase, and scientific scenarios predict we will reach +3°C or +4°C by the end of the century. And unfortunately, consequences are not proportional but rather exponential. There is little to no hope that our society could survive over the threshold of 3°C.

However, by the time we reach net zero emissions, global warming should stop immediately and slightly get back to normal over time. That means there is still room for hope and that we must act now.

How to get to net zero

Net zero basics

The first step in this long journey will be building awareness. Awareness and knowledge of sustainability, climate science, energy, and global warming. Business leaders and their teams who undergo at least a little training on sustainability usually achieve their goals at a lower cost while demonstrating more credibility with investors and talent.

To make it easier for you, we have created a knowledge base in Greencast so you don't have to waste time browsing endless web resources. Request a demo.

Emissions reduction commitments have become very popular in many sectors. As of now, companies that have committed to reducing their emissions in line with climate science represent $38 trillion of the global economy. This was made possible by initiatives like the Science-Based Target initiative (SBTi), which produces resources for companies to create zero-emissions strategies and set science-based targets, which is critical to aligning with the Paris Agreement and preventing climate disasters.

What is a science-based target? Emissions (GHG) reduction targets are considered 'science-based' if they are consistent with what the most recent climate science indicates is required to meet the Paris Agreement's goals of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Accounting for GHG emissions

Before implementing any climate action, investing in carbon offsetting, or even setting a “science-based” target, any company or institution should measure their emissions and produce an analysis of their carbon footprint. This is what we call “carbon accounting”: accounting for carbon emissions directly and indirectly linked to your activities.

Emissions are classified into categories and scopes, from one to three. Understanding the carbon footprint (representing the total of your carbon emissions) is crucial to set relevant reduction targets and implementing practical climate actions while limiting the costs for the company.

Learn everything there is to know about carbon accounting and how to get started on our Academy.

Reducing your carbon footprint

Once a company has efficiently measured its carbon emissions and can identify emissions hotspots through its value chain, it is time to implement a rigorous reduction strategy to reach net zero emissions over time.

Depending on the nature of the carbon footprint, reduction plans can be adjusted to fit companies’ business plans and minimize costs while effectively reducing carbon emissions. Measures to reduce emissions through the value chain can be very different from one company to another, but there are some general recommendations that any business can implement to start reducing its carbon footprint:

  • Consuming less energy by implementing a sobriety strategy and shifting to low-carbon electricity only (e.g., renewable energy or nuclear power);
  • Electrifying equipment where possible (e.g., company vehicles);
  • Reducing the consumption of meat in collective catering;
  • Investing in well-insulated and energy-efficient buildings;
  • Encourage low-carbon mobility (e.g., trains, bikes, public transport).

Learn more about what you can do to reduce your business’s carbon emissions and effectively achieve net zero.