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November 16, 2021

Defining Moment: Why Zero Emissions are the Only Valid Goal

Defining Moment: Why Zero Emissions are the Only Valid Goal

International pledges at COP26 often seemed to barely connect with the stark reality of widespread flooding and tundra fires, but it’s clear that the climate crisis is no longer a distant threat. We now understand on a broad scale that our societies need to fundamentally change, and that we have a duty within existing systems to push for meaningful action. 

However, what exactly we should be aiming for, which measures are most urgent, and how to get our workplaces, organisations and communities on board with large scale transformation can be hazy. To clarify, define, and empower smart decisions we need to ask informed questions of good data and luckily, the tools to help us do that are now available. 

Corporate Action: Start with Data-Driven Transparency

At a company level, it’s important to start by building a holistic picture of where emissions are generated along the entire length of your value chain. This will give you a better sense of where in your organisation the most critical, impactful cuts need to be made. Product managers and teams can then use this data to monitor emissions, set effective goals, build convincing business cases, and demonstrate success. There really is no time to waste. 

In November 2021, the COP26 summit revealed that current global activities and commitments would result in the globe heating to around 2.4°C above pre-industrial levels—almost a full catastrophic degree warmer than the global target limit of 1.5°C as set out in the Paris Agreement. For the UN-led goal of getting to net-zero by 2050 to be feasible, significant reductions are needed in the next decade.

Understand your Contribution—and Your Reduction Goal

To better understand what counts as meaningful corporate action, we need to get clearer on terminology.

Net-zero means getting to a point where greenhouse gas emissions that go into the atmosphere can be balanced out by removal initiatives. That means emissions need to be slashed dramatically as current carbon sequestration efforts—the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide—simply cannot keep pace with the rate at which greenhouse gases are being released. In fact, according to a report documenting recent carbon removal efforts by Microsoft and Stripe in the journal Nature, “the supply of solutions capable of removing and storing carbon viably is a tiny proportion of that needed to reach global net-zero emissions by 2050”.

Carbon neutral refers to the reduction or compensation of an organisation’s CO2 emissions so that its net contribution is zero. This focuses only on carbon dioxide and does not include other greenhouse gas emissions like methane, nitrous oxide, or CFCs. Carbon neutral also mainly refers to emissions that are produced directly by an organisation’s owned or controlled sources—also known as Scope 1 emissions—or those generated from purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling services—Scope 2. Carbon neutrality does not usually extend to include indirect Scope 3 emissions created by a company’s value chain, for example, through travel, marketing or sales activities. 

Carbon negative means removing more CO2 from the air than you emit. As mentioned above, without massive emission reductions, this isn’t really a feasible option given the limited supply of viable carbon removal solutions. Climate neutral means that any greenhouse gas emissions or activities with warming effects are fully compensated by reductions, removals, or activities with cooling effects. 

Focus on Transformation, not Accounting

By aiming for net-zero in line with the definition put forward by the Science Based Targets initiative, we may one day be able to get to Absolute Zero, where activities do not contribute to greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Cutting emissions as much as possible and offsetting the rest are important steps on the journey to a world in which we do not exacerbate the climate crisis. It may seem like wishful thinking right now, but with the right tools, institutional support, mindful targets, widespread awareness, and pro-climate communities, anything is possible. Let’s make the future one we want to live in.