The lowdown on net-zero

Simone Codrington of IEMA Futures examines the confusion around different carbon reduction terms, and sets out how we can achieve net-zero carbon.

One of the key reasons for climate action is to preserve a world in which future generations can thrive and develop, which is why IEMA Futures are so keen to advocate for young professionals and amplify their voices. A 2019 survey by Amnesty International found that “of over 10,000 18–25-year olds across 22 countries, 41% of respondents cited global warming as the most important issue facing the world.”

While coronavirus may have taken the spotlight for the moment, many of the effects of climate change continue to be evident and call for a net-zero carbon economy.

What does net-zero mean and how do we achieve it?

During the past few years, many councils, companies and industries have declared climate emergencies and pledged to become ‘net-zero’. Of the 408 UK councils, 65% had declared a climate emergency as of October 2019, with 23% of English councils insisting they will be carbon neutral by 2030. However, a quarter of the latter are yet to measure their current carbon emissions.

Many global companies have signed up to Pledge to Net Zero, an initiative that IEMA is a founding member of, or the Transform to Net Zero initiative; businesses from a whole mix of industries are gradually announcing commitments and setting targets. These include Scottish multinational brewery and pub chain BrewDog, which announced that it became carbon negative on 24 August this year. Cofounder James Watt declared: “Our carbon. Our problem. So, we are going to fix it ourselves. The change our world and society need has to come from progressive business and we want to play our role and nail our colours to the mast.”

These pledges are a positive step towards climate action. However, the exact definitions around these terms can vary greatly, which can lead to uncertainty around expectations. The issue is often that every business, council or industry interprets terms such as ‘net-zero’, ‘zero carbon’ and ‘carbon neutral’ differently. Pledge To Net Zero states: “To be net zero is to quantify emissions and set a plan for reducing emissions in a meaningful manner which is in line with the Paris Agreement and includes investing in carbon removal projects to generate offsets. This is slightly different to the commonly used term of carbon neutrality, which is more focused on purchasing carbon offsets versus authentically reducing emissions.”

In addition, there are now terms such as:
•    Carbon negative: The reduction of an entity's carbon footprint to less-than-neutral, so that the entity has a net effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, rather than adding it. BrewDog has achieved this through offsetting actions such as planting trees and restoring peatland.
•    Carbon positive – This involves removing more carbon dioxide than is being produced by the entity by using more efficient processes and producing surplus renewable energy.

In the built environment, the Green Building Council (GBC) network is addressing this lack of clear definitions. In 2018, WorldGBC created the ‘Advancing Net Zero’ infographic below, and in 2019, following consultation with professionals in the industry, UKGBC created a framework definition for net-zero carbon buildings. The key difference with this definition is that the principles are set out for carbon during construction and operational carbon once the buildings are in use, so include the additional scope of whole-life carbon impacts and embodied carbon.

With these definitions in mind, what areas do we need to focus on in order to become a net-zero carbon economy?

•    Design: Passive design principles for buildings and designing for operational performance
•    Collaboration: Cross-sector sharing of ideas and technology, for example hybrid equipment
•    Cost-effective technological advances to encourage uptake, for example SMART metering, efficient energy systems
•    Suitable infrastructure in urban and rural areas: Renewable energy and alternative sources of power and heat (such as communal heat networks), technology (such as good       broadband for working from home), good sustainable transport and public transport systems
•    Education: Educating people on how to use buildings and cities in the most efficient way so that they are zero-carbon in operation, as designed
•    Impactful and diverse carbon offset schemes


Case study: Malmö, Sweden
The Swedish city of Malmö, formed of a number of eco-districts, is considered one of the most sustainable cities in the world. Its first eco-district, Bo01, “was developed in the context of ambitious citywide sustainability plans with the goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2020 and to run entirely on renewable energy by 2030.” The sustainability aspirations were prioritised during planning, resulting in collaboration, use of passive design principles, green technologies and priority for sustainable transport methods.

Simone Codrington is co-chair of IEMA Futures.


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