We have all heard about global warming, and most of us understand that climate change is a global emergency that transcends national borders.
Nowadays, scientists, policymakers, and environmentalists worldwide are talking about the importance of reaching ‘net-zero’ by 2050 to prevent a potential climate-related catastrophe.
Ever since the historic Paris Agreement – adopted by world leaders on December 12, 2015 – tackling climate change and achieving the elusive goal of ‘net-zero emissions has been at the top of the agenda for governments, companies, and nonprofits alike.
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What is Net-Zero?
When the amount of greenhouse gases produced (by all countries around the world) is equal to the amount removed from the atmosphere during the same time period, we can claim to have achieved the goal of ‘net-zero’ emissions.
Greenhouse gases trap the heat of the sun, preventing it from escaping into space. This leads to the accelerated heating of the earth’s surface (as well as the air above it). Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and water vapor are some greenhouse gases commonly found in the atmosphere.
The scientific community has long recognized these greenhouse gases as the primary cause of climate change. Among them, carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most abundant, and therefore the most dangerous. A higher concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means that more heat is trapped, leading to increased rates of global warming.
The current consensus among scientists is that to avoid a climatic catastrophe, net human-induced CO2 emissions need to fall by 45 percent by 2030 and must reach net-zero levels by 2050. The base year taken for these calculations is 2010.
The rate of global warming is affected by (and proportional to) the cumulative CO2 emissions caused by all human activity. This means that, as long as global greenhouse gas emissions remain more than zero, planet earth will keep getting warmer.
The damages caused by global heating will, consequently, keep escalating until we’ve achieved net-zero emissions. This is when the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere equals the amount being removed from the atmosphere. According to scientists, this is the state needed to put a stop to global warming.
But is this something that can be achieved? Is net-zero a feasible goal, or is it just a utopian fantasy (at best) or a lie propagated by the scientific community (at worst)?
Let’s dive straight in and start digging up the answers to some of these questions.
Is Net-Zero a Feasible Goal?
The planet is getting hotter. It has been getting steadily hotter since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, over 200 years ago.
According to data collated by the World Meteorological Organization, the twenty warmest years in recorded history have occurred within the last 22 years. Even more worrying is the fact that 2011-2020 was, without a doubt, the warmest decade in human history. In line with a persistent, long-term trend of increasing temperatures, 2020 topped the charts as the warmest year on record.
The average temperatures on earth are now a full 1℃ higher than they were in pre-industrial times. This may seem like a minuscule increase, but it has already had a devastating impact on the planet and its inhabitants. Erratic weather patterns – including floods, heatwaves, and severe storms – are becoming more and more common.
The higher temperatures are causing the polar ice to melt rapidly, resulting in an unprecedented rise in sea levels. If these trends continue, scientists warn that currently inhabited land – especially coastal towns and cities – might soon be underwater.
According to the latest scientific predictions, global temperatures are set to rise by 3-5℃ in approximately the next 80 years. Given these grim facts and numbers, how can we realistically hope to reach the goal of net-zero emissions in the next few decades?
Well, research says that it might be possible. Net-zero is neither a lie nor a trap, just an incredibly difficult and ambitious goal that we must meet to ensure our survival.
And two main things need to happen, for the planet to begin its net-zero journey.
The Two-Pronged Approach to a Net-Zero Future
The two ways in which we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases (and especially CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere are:
Reduction in Emissions:
Power generation, manufacturing processes, intensive agriculture, and transport are some of the main activities that precipitate the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
These greenhouse gas emissions can be minimized by shifting away from fossil fuels and fully embracing renewable sources of energy, like solar, wind, and hydropower.
On an individual level, you can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by driving an electric vehicle, purchasing environmentally sustainable products, taking public transport, eating locally-produced, organic food, and minimizing your power usage whenever possible.
Removal of Gases:
Removing the greenhouse gases already present in the atmosphere is another way in which we can try and achieve our net-zero goals. Planting more trees – both through afforestation and reforestation – is the most straightforward way to do this.
Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the air through the process of photosynthesis. They also help regulate freshwater and contribute to food production.
Factories and other industrial units can also be designed (or remodeled) to capture, store, and transport the greenhouse gases they produce, instead of releasing them into the air.
This process is known as carbon capture and storage (CCS). It can reportedly capture up to 90 percent of the carbon dioxide produced when fossil fuels are burnt to generate electricity.
With this two-pronged approach, we might be able to reach our net-zero goal sooner than expected. Moreover, the advent of new CCS technologies – and improving industrial processes – has further accelerated this move towards a net-zero future.
Individual Contributions Toward a Net-Zero Future
Now, let’s take a look at what we can do, on an individual level, to achieve this seemingly impossible goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
If you are like most people, then your home is perhaps one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions in your life. The average single-family home in the US is about 2,400 square feet in size. Simply heating such a large home during the winters, and keeping it cool during the summers, would require a lot of energy.
Since most household electricity is still produced in coal-generated power plants, this inevitably leads to massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Common household appliances like air conditioners, washing machines, dishwashers, and furnaces also use up a lot of energy.
This is why environmentally conscious individuals are now opting to build (or buy) ‘net-zero homes’. In essence, a net-zero home is simply a residence that produces as much energy as it uses in a given year. Hence, it does not need to source any electricity from an external power plant that runs on fossil fuels. As a result, the net-zero home does not contribute, in any way, to the production or emission of greenhouse gases.
Some features of a net-zero home – that you can implement in your own living space – are as follows:
- Insulation: Each of the building envelope elements – such as the roof, floors, and walls – should be properly insulated, preferably with insulated concrete forms (ICFs). All the gaps and leaks around the doors and windows should be sealed, to ensure that the temperature-regulated air inside the home has no way of escaping outside.
- Energy-Efficient Appliances: Most net-zero homes contain Energy Star appliances that utilize far less power than their conventional counterparts. Energy-efficient, fluorescent lamps – that provide more light per watt than incandescent ones – might also be used. Lastly, occupancy sensors prevent unnecessary power usage by turning off the lights, fans, AC, etc. when a room is unoccupied.
- Energy Production: A home can’t be considered net-zero unless it produces its own electricity. Photovoltaic solar panels are a popular source of energy for net-zero housing projects. Once installed, they can provide sustainable and renewable energy to power all the appliances and equipment in your home.
The key to a lot of this is keeping the price down and reasonable, of course! You can check out our other article that goes through some affordable measures you can take to start the net-zero journey here.
Traditional petrol and diesel cars release copious amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. About 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US can be attributed to the transportation sector.
By reducing the amount of greenhouse gases you produce – simply to get from one place to another – you can make a significant contribution to the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Some of the steps you can take are:
- Whenever possible, make use of public transportation like trains, buses, subways, etc.
- If your destination is close by, consider walking, jogging, or biking to it, instead of driving a car.
- If you must travel by car, choose an electric vehicle or EV, which are typically cleaner and greener than the ones running on petroleum.
- When you’re going to the same place, plan ahead to carpool with your friends or coworkers, instead of driving individual vehicles.
Animal-based food items, such as meat and dairy, contribute significantly to the emission of greenhouse gases. In addition, ruminant animals like cows, goats, and sheep produce a lot of methane when digesting their food. Methane is one of the most common greenhouse gases, and plays a key role in climate change and global warming.
Raising these animals for slaughter also requires a lot of land, water, and other resources. Entire forests are razed to produce animal feed (like barley, rye, and oats) for cattle rearing. Extensive cattle ranching has also been linked to forest fires in the Amazon rainforest.
To minimize the emission of greenhouse gases, therefore, you should try to increase the proportion of organic, locally-produced, and plant-based food items in your diet. Transporting fruits, vegetables, and meats over long distances can also increase carbon emissions, so you should go for the products sold in your local farmers’ market, whenever possible.
The goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 is not just crucial for the long-term survival of the planet and its inhabitants, it is eminently feasible. As you can see from the facts and data provided in this article, net-zero is neither a lie nor a trap.
However, it is an ambitious and difficult-to-achieve goal that will require much persistence and sacrifice, both on an individual level and from governments, corporations, and communities around the world.