What does net zero mean? Understanding climate goals

What does net zero mean? Understanding climate goals

10 Oct 2022

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According to the BEIS’ most recent report on public attitudes to climate change1, 84% of people said that they were concerned about climate change, with 41% saying they were “very concerned.” Clearly, and rightly, the public is deeply concerned about the effects of climate change and how to tackle it. But with a plethora of different terms, it can be difficult to fully comprehend where we are at, what we can do and how we achieve climate goals as individuals, organisations, and nations.

This CPD article aims to guide you through the terminology often used, what the current UK goals are as well as some insight as to how businesses can help achieve those goals.

What are greenhouse gases?

Before diving into net zero and beyond, it’s important to understand the nuance within the definitions of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide, as these are often incorrectly. Understanding these terms is important for our understanding of the climate change terminology we’re here to grasp. Greenhouse gases are gases in the earth’s atmosphere that trap heat. The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons.

Carbon dioxide (Co2) contributes to around 76% of global greenhouse gas emissions2. The other 24% of greenhouse gas emissions include gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons.

What is net zero?

Net zero means that a business, organisation, or nation's total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are equal to or lower than the emissions it has removed from the environment. To aim to achieve net zero, an organisation must seek to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible and take action to offset any remaining emissions they produce. An important distinction here is that net zero refers to all greenhouse gases, not just carbon emissions.   

Net zero vs carbon neutral: What is the difference between carbon neutral and net zero?

As noted above, net zero refers to the amount of all greenhouse gases (GHGs) - such as carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide - that are emitted being equal to or less than the amount removed from the atmosphere.

Carbon neutrality means that the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere equals the carbon emitted. This, essentially, is a narrower term for net zero that is limited to the removal of carbon, not all greenhouse gases. As previously mentioned, carbon dioxide makes up the majority of greenhouse gases (76%) which is why tackling carbon emissions is an important focus. However, to concentrate solely on carbon is to overlook the remaining 24% of greenhouse gases. Because of this, net zero is (for many) the ultimate aim when it comes to climate goals.

Climate goals - how to achieve net zero

How can we achieve net zero emissions?

There are two main ways to achieve net zero: reducing emissions and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Some of the best techniques for reducing emissions are to use domestic energy more efficiently, have properly insulated homes, use low carbon travel methods (like cycling, walking, or using public transport), and abide by the age-old ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ moniker in our daily lives.

Removing carbon from the atmosphere is achieved using technologies that actively take in carbon dioxide or by enhancing natural removal methods such as planting trees.

When do we need to achieve net zero?

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement3, 197 countries agreed to try to keep temperature rises "well below" 1.5C as a means of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Experts have outlined that in order to achieve this, net zero must be reached by 2050.

In the UK, the government introduced into law a target to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. At the time of writing, the UK has made strides in reaching the net zero target in terms of cutting carbon emissions from transport and power generation but may miss targets4 due to agricultural practices and poorly insulated homes using energy inefficiently.

What are the benefits of setting net zero targets as a business?

Become a climate leader

As the consumer continues to demand more from big businesses when it comes to climate change, more organisations seek to give the perception of action. But with numerous organisations being accused of ‘greenwashing’ their audience (much like Boohoo has found in recent weeks by appointing Kourtney Kardashian as their sustainability ambassador5), there’s never been a better time to show customers and employees that your organisation is doing something of value. Becoming a climate leader by playing your role in the global decarbonisation journey can reap huge dividends for your reputation and potentially offer a competitive advantage over competitors.

Increase investor confidence

ESG (environmental, social, and governance) credentials are increasingly becoming decision-making factors for financial institutions when looking to invest. Credible commitments and strong carbon reduction strategies can be great assets when seeking investment opportunities.

Mitigate future risks

The future of emissions policy is only going in one direction - stricter regulation. Setting targets now can boost resilience to future changes to emissions regulations.

Reduce costs

As we’re seeing now with the cost of living crisis, the organisations and nations that rely less on fossil fuels are less impacted by the volatile energy markets. A very welcome side benefit of delivering on Net Zero targets is that it can result in future savings through lower energy costs.

Advantages of net zero targets for businesses

Steps towards achieving net zero as a business

Measure your emissions

Calculating emissions is an integral part of the process of achieving net zero. The way in which emissions are calculated is they are split into three categories: scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3. These are:

  • Scope 1 are direct emissions caused by any process or activity by the company that causes greenhouse gas emission. This includes any emissions in the manufacturing of products or emissions from owned company vehicles, for example.
  • Scope 2 are emissions that are indirectly caused by the company when the energy they purchase or use is produced. For example, when a business purchases energy from a utility company this is tracked as scope 2 emissions as it is produced by the energy company and not produced on-site by the business that is using the energy. The production of that same energy would be tracked as scope 1 by the utility company as it has been produced on-site.
  • Scope 3 are, in short, all other emissions that a company indirectly contributes to. This includes energy produced in the value chain of products that a company purchases (for example, an automotive manufacturer buys a car battery as part of the production process, all the emissions required to create that battery from mining the materials to the manufacture to shipping are all tracked as scope 3 emissions), emissions caused by waste management, and even the commuting emissions of the workforce.

Calculating the full picture of emissions as a business can seem daunting but there are many tools and organisations like Carbon Footprint Ltd or Emitwise that are available to help accurately track emissions for businesses of all sizes.

Set a target for carbon reduction

In order to reach net zero, a company needs to set out a clear long-term target that is science-based. The SBTi (Science Based Targets Initiative) is an internationally recognised body that is dedicated to aiding company’s set effective goals as well as creating a consistent criteria for climate change goals. 

Within this target should be a defined strategy for reducing emissions. The SBTi has a detailed guide to setting a net zero target6 on its website that is useful source for laying out an appropriate science-based target.

Commit to off-setting residual emissions

The third and final step is to commit to an off-setting programme that will remove the volume of emissions that it isn’t possible to eliminate through emissions reduction efforts. There are a multitude of international carbon off-setting programmes your business can choose from.

Where to explore Climate CPD Courses

With over 25 years of experience, The CPD Certification Service is the world’s leading and largest CPD accreditation organisation working across all industry sectors. If you’re interested in exploring net zero and the strategies to achieve it in more depth, there are a number of courses that you can find in our Course Catalogue. Our catalogue has thousands of training courses, conferences and events, workshops and seminars available from a variety of CPD providers. All the courses shown on our website have been reviewed and recognised as meeting the required industry standards.

We hope this article was helpful. If you are looking to become a CPD Provider, please contact our team to discuss your requirements in more detail. Alternatively if you are looking to record your CPD, please go to the myCPD Portal where you can manage, track and log your learning in one simple place.


¹BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker: Net Zero and Climate Change Spring 2022, UK






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