What is net zero and how are the UK and other countries doing?

The UK government has set out more details about how it intends to cut greenhouse gas emissions and achieve “net zero” by 2050.

The announcement comes days before the start of the important climate change summit, COP26.

What’s been announced?

Presenting the net zero strategy to the House of Commons, Energy Minister Greg Hands pledged:

  • £620m in grants for electric vehicles and charging points, plus £350m to help the transition from petrol
  • Grants of up to £5,000 for householders to install low-carbon heat pumps
  • £120m to develop small nuclear reactors (no announcement on the go-ahead for the Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk)
  • £625m for tree planting and peat restoration
  • More money for carbon capture and storage hubs

The government has already announced a ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, and that all the UK’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2035.

A green levy – used to pay for climate-friendly policies – will be moved from electricity to gas bills over the next decade.

Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband called the latest announcements “a massive let-down”.

What is net zero?

Net zero means not adding to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Achieving it will involve reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible and balancing out any that remain by removing an equivalent amount.

Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) are released when we burn oil, gas and coal for our homes, factories and transport. This causes global warming by trapping the sun’s energy.

Chart showing major sources of greenhouse emissions in the UK

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 197 countries agreed to try to limit temperature rises “well below” 1.5C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Experts say that to achieve this target countries would need to reduce CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050. Nations will be asked to set out what steps they are taking to move towards this at the COP26 summit in Glasgow.


How will carbon be removed from the atmosphere?

Not all emissions can be reduced to zero, so those remaining will have to be compensated for, or offset.

Almost every country is planting trees as a cheap way of absorbing carbon, although there are questions over whether there’s enough space for the trees needed.

Technology involving carbon capture and storage has also been suggested.

This involves using machinery to remove carbon from the air, then solidifying it and burying it underground.

However, the technology is still emerging, very expensive and as yet unproven.

What are other countries doing?

It’s generally recognised that a global effort is needed to tackle climate change.

For this reason, net zero targets only make sense if every country in the world is moving in the same direction.

Although 132 countries have publicly pledged to reach net zero emissions before 2050, China – currently the biggest producer of CO2 in the world – says it is aiming for “carbon neutrality” by 2060, although it has not set out exactly what this means and how it will get there.

Some of the world’s most heavily populated countries – including Russia, India, and Indonesia – have not given any net zero commitment.

What problems are there with net zero?

There’s controversy about how some countries might try to reach net zero.

For instance, Country A might record lower emissions if it shuts down energy-intensive industries such as steel production.

But if Country A were then to import steel from Country B, it’s effectively handed on its carbon emissions to Country B, rather than reduce the sum total of greenhouse gases.

There are schemes that enable rich countries to offset their emissions by paying poorer countries to switch to cleaner fuels.

However, these are seen by some as a way to avoid taking more action domestically.

And it’s hard to say that initiatives funded to offset emissions elsewhere would not have happened anyway.

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