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Net Zero vs. Near Zero Emissions: Negative or Positive?

Wed 12 Apr 2023

In this opinion piece, James Rix discusses the concept of Net Zero, its importance, and the various related terms and expressions, as well as offering insights into achieving Net Zero emissions and the role each of us can play in this journey.

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Understanding Net Zero and Related Terms

Over time there have been many expressions which have come into common parlance and, depending on your point of view, can actually mean different things to different people – the latest in this long line of expressions is ‘Net Zero’.

The Paris Agreement defined the need for ‘Net Zero’ by requiring states to ‘achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions, (chiefly of pollution or environmental change originating in human activity), by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’

Does this achieve a reduction of CO2 emissions? Prima facie, no. Why? Because if you are producing 100kg of carbon and removing 100kg of carbon, you have achieved ‘Net Zero’. However, if your carbon emissions were 5kg of carbon and you removed 5kg, you are still at ‘Net Zero’. Both examples achieve the same ‘Net Zero’ result.

This can also be referred to as ‘carbon neutral’; meaning that any CO2 released into the atmosphere from a company’s activities is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed. This is, however, not a valid end-state, as this only refers to carbon, but it is a possible intermediate step along the roadmap to zero.

Climate Positive and Carbon Negative: A Valid End-State Target

What needs to be considered is the ongoing drive to reduce the production of CO2 in the first instance. The reduction of CO2 needs to be permeant and the removal of the CO2 needs to be scaled up. Therefore, what needs to be done is to ensure that removals of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are more than ‘like for like’ over a defined time period.

This would be referred to as ‘Climate Positive’; meaning that activity goes beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide and other GHGs from the atmosphere. ‘Carbon Negative’ means the same as ‘Climate Positive’. While ‘Carbon Positive’ is how organisations describe both climate positive and carbon negative. This is a valid end-state target. Confused yet? This is what happens when marketing gets their hands on the buzz words!

Other Expressions and Their Meanings

  • ‘Climate Neutral’ refers to reducing all GHG to the point of zero while eliminating all other negative environmental impacts that an organisation may cause
  • ‘Net-Zero carbon emissions’ mean that an activity releases no carbon emissions into the atmosphere without creating more
  • ‘Net-Zero emissions’ balance the whole amount of GHG released and the amount removed from the atmosphere

Greenhouse Gases and Their Effects

Bear in mind that CO2 is not the only GHG. There are at least 7 types of GHG:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • Methane (CH4)
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O)

… and industrial gases:

  • Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
  • Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
  • Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6)
  • Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)

GHGs let sunlight pass through the atmosphere, however, they also prevent the heat that the sunlight brings from leaving the atmosphere. Overall, greenhouse gases are a good thing. Without them, planet earth would be too cold and life would not exist. However, humans by their aforementioned anthropogenic emissions, are increasingly influencing the climate and the earth’s temperature by burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, and farming livestock, amongst other environmentally harmful actions. These activities add enormous amounts of GHG to those naturally occurring in the atmosphere, thereby disrupting the balance of GHGs, increasing the greenhouse effect, and giving rise to global warming.

Carbon is the GHG that is the most out of balance with the earth’s ecology, closely followed by methane. But by reducing CO2, only one of the seven types of GHGs have been dealt with.

The Road to Net-Zero Emissions

To be able to achieve Net-Zero emissions we need to reduce the 3 major causes GHG by:

  • Stopping, or at least reducing, the amount of fossil fuels being burnt to lower CO2 emissions
  • Reforesting where trees have been reduced and plant more to achieve CO2 sequestration
  • Reduce the number of farmed livestock by looking at an altered diet to address both CH4 & CO2 emissions

Does this mean that Net-Zero emissions is a ‘nirvana’ that will be held as a holy grail similar to achieving a PUE of 1.0? The likelihood is that, despite our best efforts, we will not see Net-Zero emissions by 2050. However, we will see ‘Near Zero’ being achieved.

This does not mean that efforts to Net Zero are to no avail. Every step along the way brings us closer to the right end state where we will have addressed the balance of GHGs and learned to live without warming the earth that is causing a wide range of deleterious effects.

A Call to Action

It is up to us. Both individually and corporately. This is a call to action: organisations do not do anything in themselves, it is the people within them that do.

What are YOU doing to live in a way that reduces the production or consumption of GHGs?

> Read more: Climate tech boom in UK: A beacon of hope in the against climate change

About the Author

James Rix is the Project Director & Accredited Sustainability Advisor at Arcadis. He has been building the homes where the internet lives since 2007, where he first started working in data centres in Southeast Asia. Since then, he has been involved in project managing data centre projects in 14 different countries and over 3 continents. The projects have been green field, brown field, refurbishments, white space fit-out, migrations and closure.

James is experienced in facilities from sever rooms up to hyperscale campus. Although primarily a building engineer within civil and structural engineering, he is knowledgeable across electrical, mechanical and IT infrastructure and the deployment of these into data centres globally.

He writes and speaks extensively about the data centre industry at events around the world, including CloserStill Media’s Data Centre World. In addition, he leads the Arcadis Global Data Centre & Mission Critical Community of Practice, which acts as an internal knowledge hub with a membership of 250 Arcadians from around the world. He is passionate about emerging talent in the industry, sustainable construction and practical roads to Net Zero.

If you have an opinion you’d like to share, please contact our Editor, Stuart Crowley, at [email protected].

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