You may have heard people talking about net zero. It’s a pretty popular term right now. You may see that your bank claims to be a “net-zero business.” Your co-worker is bragging about their net-zero home.

But what does net zero actually mean? We’ll boil it down for you and explain how the term varies depending on its usage.

What Does Net Zero Mean?

Scientists and global leaders are concerned about climate change. With temperatures rising, they seek out ways we can help repair the damage we are doing to our environment and our planet. And one solution is striving for net zero.

Net zero means achieving a balance between the greenhouse gases produced and the removal of these gases from the atmosphere. But what does that really mean? Let’s examine the situation more closely.

Greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, are some of the main contributors to climate change. Unfortunately, the idea of completely eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions (gross zero emissions) is an enormous undertaking. Rather than be discouraged by the impossible, leaders have chosen to focus instead on a solution that is more possible–net zero emissions.

So basically, here’s how to achieve net zero. All the carbon dioxide we create by burning fossil fuels, we need to find a way to remove it from the atmosphere. Planting trees (or just not cutting down the forests) can help with that. So can new technologies that remove carbon from the air and sequester it. However, these technologies are still very expensive. And planting trees is not enough.

We also have to look at ways to reduce our emissions.

Why Is Net Zero Important?

So now that we understand what net zero is, let’s examine why it is important.

The Earth is getting warmer. According to the World Economic Forum, we currently have seen a rise in global temperatures of 1.1 degrees from pre-Industrial levels. And if we don’t halt our current greenhouse gas emissions, the temperatures will continue to rise. Scientists estimate that they could rise an additional 3-5 degrees Celsius in the next century.

While a few degrees may not seem like a lot, it is–in terms of global temperature. It is the difference between the ice at the poles melting or staying frozen. If temperatures continue to rise, we can expect to see extreme weather patterns and potentially rising sea levels. These changes can lead to food shortages and loss of habitable land, which in turn will contribute to hunger and migration.

Net zero is the first step on the path to stopping the rise in temperature. Once we have achieved that, then we can work towards reversing the process. While it is a long-term goal, it is worth it when we think of the world we will leave for our children and grandchildren.

Photo of a polar bear precariously attempting to move from one small piece of slushy ice to another. Net zero is an important goal to combat global warming.
Global warming is dangerous for everyone.

Global Initiatives – The Race To Zero

Currently, scientists predict that in order to halt the progress of climate change, we must reach net zero by 2050. This will help prevent the global temperature from climbing above 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-Industrial temperatures. To reach this goal, a global strategic alliance was formed–the Race To Zero.

The goal of the Race to Zero is to create the “largest alliance ever” working to prevent climate change. According to the Race to Zero campaign, “It mobilizes a coalition of leading net zero initiatives, representing 733 cities, 31 regions, 3,067 businesses, 173 of the biggest investors, and 622 Higher Education Institutions.” Combined with 120 countries, they are all striving to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, if not sooner.

Different Uses Of The Term

While net zero often refers to global emissions, you will see that the term is used in other contexts as well. The overall definition does not change: the amount produced is balanced by the amount removed. But the specific connotations can vary. So let’s take a closer look at different ways net zero is used in different sectors.

Net Zero Emissions

As we mentioned, net zero emissions refers to greenhouse gas emissions. And most specifically, to carbon emissions. The EPA tells us that there are four gases that are the major contributors to climate change: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. But of those four, carbon dioxide accounts for almost eighty percent of our U.S. emissions.

The main culprit for the creation of carbon dioxide emissions is the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil for energy and transportation. Industrial processes also contribute carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. While there are natural processes in place that help balance the carbon dioxide in the air, like trees, they cannot keep up with the quantities we are producing.

Photo of a highway with bumper to bumper traffic. Re-thinking transportation is going to play a big role in getting to net zero.
We burn a lot of fossil fuels getting from point A to point B.

That is why people focus so much on carbon dioxide emissions. By seeking alternatives to fossil fuels for energy and transportation, we can work towards reducing our emissions. And reduction is the first step towards net zero.

Net Zero Energy

Closely linked to net zero emissions is the concept of net zero energy. Net zero energy is an idea that combines energy efficiency, energy conservation, and renewable energy sources to create the same amount of energy that is consumed. This can apply to a business, a community, a city, or even a country.

By using renewable energy sources like solar or wind, a community can produce all the energy it needs locally or on-site. In some cases, they produce more energy than they use. When this happens, the community can sell the excess energy. Other communities that cannot produce enough power can purchase this excess energy in the form of Renewable Energy Credits.

The use of Renewable Energy Credits is called equivalence. Equivalence allows communities that do not have the capacity to produce all their power locally to achieve net zero energy by other means.

Again, remember the idea here is one of net zero, not gross zero. A community may produce power in excess of its needs at certain times of the year but not produce enough at others. But as long as the total annual energy production is equal to or higher than the total energy consumed, net zero energy has been achieved.

We can apply the same concept to buildings and homes, so let’s look at what that means for a net zero home.

Net Zero Homes

A net zero home is all about balance. The idea behind a net zero home is that the energy produced by the home annually from renewable sources, like solar or wind power, is equal to or greater than the power consumed by the home annually. A net zero home is different from a 100 percent off-grid home.

With an off-grid home, all the power used is generated locally. Excess power is usually stored in batteries for times when you aren’t generating power. For example, if you are running a solar array, you don’t generate power at night. So the system runs off power stored in the batteries. If you don’t store enough power, when your batteries die, the power goes off until the sun comes back out.

However, a net-zero home is connected to the grid. Here the grid functions, in many ways, like the battery in an off-grid system. Excess power is sold back to your local power grid during peak power generation (think long, sunny summer days). Think of this like storing energy in a battery–but instead, the power sold creates a credit.

So, when short, cold winter days come, and you can’t generate the same amount of power, you use those credits earned in the summer. Using those credits is like drawing power from your battery. As long you don’t use more power in the winter than you create in the summer, your home is net-zero.

But there is more to building a net-zero home than just generating power. Net-zero homes are exceptionally well-insulated, and employ the latest in energy-efficient appliances. Practicing energy conservation is essential if you are looking to achieve net zero energy in your home.

Net Zero Business

If you think it is difficult to have a net-zero home, imagine how difficult it is to run a net-zero business. While companies have a greater capacity than individuals to invest in renewable energy, they still don’t have the ability to create all the energy they use. So how do net-zero businesses do it?

The answer is carbon offsets. Carbon offsets allow businesses (and individuals) to invest in projects that are devoted to offsetting the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. These projects can take on many different forms, from planting trees to creating renewable energy. Quality carbon offset projects are certified to third party international verification standards.

Photo of a building with solar panels to achieve net zero.
Commercial buildings can use solar technology to generate some of their own power. They can also purchase carbon offsets.

These carbon offset projects allow businesses to balance the emissions they produce with the emissions that they remove from the air without eliminating emission-intensive practices. Critics of carbon offsets complain that they are just a way for businesses to continue as normal while “green-washing” their business practices for a more positive public image.

Either way, carbon offsets, like selling power back to the grid for credit, are a way for businesses to achieve the claim of net zero.

Net Zero Water

As you can probably guess, net zero water means not using any more water than is available. Net zero water can be achieved by a region or for a building. Net zero water involves rainwater capture, conservation, and water recycling to be independent of the “water grid.”

Few buildings or communities are currently working towards net zero water. But as environmental factors continue to change with rising temperatures, you can expect to see more focus on this area in the future.

Final Thoughts

Everyone needs to do their part to achieve net zero by 2050. Net zero is not just about global world leaders making proclamations. It is about ordinary people like you and me making changes to reduce our personal carbon emissions.

While building a net zero home is one way to reduce your impact, there are smaller steps you can take if that seems extreme. Practice energy efficiency. Turn off lights when you leave the room or wait until later in the day to turn them on. When you buy a new appliance, make sure you look for an ENERGY STAR rated appliance that uses less energy. Each of these acts of reduction brings us one step closer to net zero.

You can also reduce your use of transportation. Transportation emissions account for a third of all U.S. carbon emissions. So, walk to the corner store instead of driving. Look into carpooling or riding public transportation for your daily commute. And if you fly a lot, you can buy carbon offsets as an individual–they aren’t just for big business.

One of the best ways to offset your carbon emissions is to plant trees. Trees help sequester carbon dioxide, removing it from the air. Not only that, trees help cool the air, provide shade, and represent a promise to future generations. To quote Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope. We also secure the future of our children.”

Photo of hands planting a tree in soil.
Trees remind us that great things can happen when you start small.

By choosing renewable energy sources, supporting net-zero businesses, and working daily to reduce our energy consumption, we can also do our part in the race to net zero and help fight climate change.

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