Net Zero: What Does It Mean?

Fusion energy at COP26 - GOV.UKWe asked CFWI Climate Ambassador Pippa Stilwell to help us all understand exactly what Net Zero means. Here’s what she said:

If you are following the progress of COP26, as I am, you may be confused by all the promises, pledges and targets that keep emerging.

The UK was the first nation to commit to a net zero target by 2050. Since then, other developed nations have made the same commitment. So, what does net zero mean?

Net Zero means removing from the atmosphere as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as we put in. In 2019, about 43 billion tons of CO2 were released into the atmosphere because of human activities, including agriculture and land use. That’s a lot of CO2. At that rate, in a net zero world, we would have to remove 43 billion tons of CO2 every year, either by restoring ecosystems which absorb CO2, such as forests and peatlands, or by technological fixes – devices which capture and bury CO2, now in their expensive infancy.

In an ideal world, the CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as methane emitted by human actions would be negligible; not enough to make any noticeable difference to the climate. But as we know, it’s not an ideal world and we will go on emitting substantial amounts of CO2 from our homes, factories and transport systems for many years to come.

Already, some industries, and even countries, have become adept at wriggling out of their responsibilities by outsourcing their compensatory activities, offsetting their carbon emissions by buying promises of, for example, tree planting abroad; or buying polluting products abroad, thereby exporting the responsibility for the emissions. And, predictably, offsetting certificates are now traded on financial markets.

The best, most certain, way of achieving net zero, is to aim at the worst culprits – no more polluting industries or burning of fossils fuels. It’s achievable, and it needs to happen fast, but we need to get there via a genuine net zero aspiration: no more dodgy carbon accounting or outsourcing our pollution to other countries.

– Pippa Stilwell, WI Climate Ambassador


Did you catch Pippa speaking about climate change on Radio Cornwall yesterday? She was chatting to James Churchfield, and you can hear her here in case you missed it. Go to the 2:09 mark.

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