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Net-Zero vs Zero Carbon: What's the difference?

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

Discussions about policies surrounding global warming and carbon emissions inevitably include mentions of 'net-zero' or 'zero carbon' as desirable goals. Some argue that the 'net-zero' or 'carbon neutral' targets may do more harm than good. To investigate, one should first be clear about the nuances concerning the terminologies.

Zero carbon: CO2 emissions are reduced to nil. Net-zero: CO2 emissions are not reduced. It is offset by removing an equal amount from the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide Removal

Net-zero or Carbon neutral condition are achieved through the use of negative emissions technologies (NETs) which actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestered (stored) for very long periods. The simplest method is afforestation (development of forests in arid regions) which converts atmospheric CO2 into biomass. Most NETs are not yet ready for scaling up and many still are at the research or demonstration stage.

Chart: Global Annual CO2 Sequestration

Source: RCraig09, CC BY-SA 4.0

The problem with net-zero targets It does not address the root cause of climate change and is considered to be a false solution. By emphasizing carbon offsetting the focus is moved away from reducing carbon emissions. The fossil fuel industry engages in lobbying for carbon capture strategies and funds tree planting campaigns without significantly cutting their emissions.

“You buy yourself a clean conscience by paying someone else to undo the harm you are causing.” — George Monbiot

The European Academies’ Science Advisory Council finds that NETs "offer only limited realistic potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere and not at the scale envisaged in some climate scenarios", with methods based on forests and soils being the “most technologically credible” currently. While afforestation is the best available method, a disaster like forest fire could release the captured CO2 back into the atmosphere rapidly.

Carbon capture, while a key element in climate change policies, is extremely risky. Research suggests that it could be counterproductive and, in fact, lead to an increase in temperature of up to 1.4°C. Carbon trading and credit system is actually facilitating the proliferation of fossil fueled power plants and airlines - both are notorious CO2 emitters.

The dream of with zero carbon targets

Within the energy industry, a zero carbon condition is achieved by replacing all conventional sources with renewable and sustainable alternatives. By reducing the greenhouse emissions to practically zero, we relieve our progeny from inheriting the guilt of following environmentally detrimental lifestyles. Then, we can focus on mitigating the damages from historical emissions through the use of NETs. The bottom-line: Reduce the carbon emissions from all facets of human activity. Remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester reliably. Zero carbon condition is best and treats the root problem. Net-zero targets are risky and only acts as a loose bandage.

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