Clean energy doesn’t stop at net zero

Author: Tej Gidda

At a glance

While net emissions will be zero, there's limited impact on the emissions we've already made as a society, and that have accumulated in the atmosphere.

While net emissions will be zero, there's limited impact on the emissions we've already made as a society, and that have accumulated in the atmosphere.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we got a glimpse of how quickly nature can rebound, when given a chance. As a result, our collective consciousness shifted, on a global scale, toward sustainability and greener lifestyle choices. During our hiatus, we seem to have reached a unique inflection point, with investment, technology, and government all taking big strides toward a clean-energy transition at the same time.

The question is: What happens next?

Over the past year, the message that we must reach net zero has gone mainstream. Yet, many might be surprised to learn that net zero isn’t the end of our reliance on fossil fuels. On the contrary, it simply means our economy has offset all emissions through actions such as tree planting, or through technologies that capture carbon emissions before they’re released into the air, or by introducing additional renewables.

So what is net zero?

So many entities have set a net-zero emissions goal, using different timelines. Entire countries, such as the U.K., have promised to emit net-zero greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 2050. Many corporations, including multinationals, have done the same. This means corporations and nations are moving toward a 2050 timeline in which GHG emissions are countered by offsets, or decreases in emissions, until there are no net emissions. 

This has many implications. First, it means that GHG emissions will continue, including those from the use of fossil fuels. Second, it means that several approaches are required to balance out these emissions to reach net zero. But third, and most important, while net emissions will be zero, there’s limited impact on the emissions we’ve already made as a society, and that have already accumulated in the atmosphere. These emissions were made through the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and will remain with us after 2050.


Net-Negative is the future of a post-net-zero world 

How do we, as a society, begin to reduce the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? The answer is by capturing that CO2 and sequestering it, and by using technology to reduce removals to a level far beyond emissions. When we talk about the energy transition, it really is that: a long-term evolution away from fossil fuels that won’t happen overnight. Net zero is, by itself, a transition step, not an end point, on the way to a net-negative future.

As much as we need to concentrate on net zero as part of the energy transition, it’s also essential to begin charting the post-2050 course to a net-negative world. Hydrogen and carbon capture — as well as extensive use of renewable electricity, liquids, and gaseous fuels such as renewable natural gas — will all be key components of the future.

Other technologies are under development to accelerate the move. And, if you can imagine it, the technologies that will make the biggest impact don’t even exist yet. In any case, to be sustainable now, we need to start thinking about a net-negative future.

Original work published August 2021 on iPolitics.