Net Zero – turning scepticism into advocacy


Written by Tony Sudworth, Sustainability Lead at Department, DWP

I think that the first thing to determine – what is Net Zero? And what are we asking people to agree to? 

The recently revised ISO definition is that Net Zero is ‘a condition in which human-caused residual GHG emissions are balanced by human-led removals over a specified period and within specified boundaries. Human-led removals include ecosystem restoration, direct air carbon capture and storage, reforestation and afforestation, enhanced weathering, biochar and other effective methods.

Why does it matter so much? Because it’s a matter of simple physics. The calculation by the IPCC is that for us / the planet to remain under an average of 1.5 degrees temperature increase we can release 1845 Gt of carbon emissions in total. We have already released 1510 Gt. 

We continue to release 38-40Gt of carbon a year which means that we will exceed our planets carbon budget in just 7-8 years – and then we won’t hold the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. In fact, human – caused emissions need to fall 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 to reach Net Zero by 2050  

The implication is that for Net zero to make sense we 

  1. Must reduce our overall emissions by as much as possible 
  2. Offset / Remove the residual emissions 

There is not enough land mass on the planet to plant trees to offset current emissions, so we do NEED the emissions curve for the planet needs to start quite a dramatic decline, now, rather than plateau

Sink or Swim - Global Sources and Sinks of CO2


So, what’s stopping us?  The main reason I think is that although there are benefits, costs savings to a transition to a circular economy (and we prevent the climate damage that will cost billions.) it’s a long term, ‘boil the frog’ scenario with benefits accruing over years with most of our leaders having no prospect of being in power in 28 years’ time. 

This implies that we can 

  1. Refine what we do today to make carbon reductions to existing processes 
  2. Plan to do things very differently to design carbon emissions out of the system  

But as we know change is resisted – at all levels 

 This is particularly true in business so what are the major challenges in tackling net zero?  And how to overcome them?

  1. Gaining buy in There is plenty of compelling evidence that employees and customers want businesses to act on climate change, that inaction is a huge business risk and that there is great opportunity in action – what is good for planet is good for business. So, the first step is educating the wider teams about why sustainability matters, the bigger picture we need to solve and what THEY CAN DO to help. You also really need a senior, vocal sponsor to act as an advocate for business change.
  2. Competing with other business priorities – It can be hard to compete with other business priorities that have clear cost, revenue and service quality outcomes on existing business models compared to longer term sustainability actions. We need to make the business case for the long-term resilience of the business and reputational returns. And it is also about talking about an opportunity and not a binary choice to do sustainability at the expense of costs.
  3. Data collection and reporting – a sustainability manager could spend most of their time collecting data and reporting, which often feels at the expense of concerted action to drive change. Specialist software and external support can reduce the data collection and reporting burden considerably so you can focus is on delivering the strategy.


If we don’t reduce our emissions by as much as we can and remove the rest to reach Net Zero the Earth will warm to around 2.7 degrees – which is projected to mean 6 to 9 metre sea level rise , spread of tropical disease into temperate areas  , reduction in world food supplies , medical conditions due to increased heat , reduction in water supplies due to drought and the loss of 99% of coral reefs. 

We can see it coming, we know what needs to be done, achieving Net Zero by 2050, or before, will mean we bequeath a liveable world for our children and grand children.

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