Net Zero

I’m a bit frustrated when I see a lot of countries advertising their aim for net zero emissions by 2050. While the goal is laudable, communication around it is rather misleading.

Net zero emissions means that the amount of carbon you emit into the atmosphere is the same as the amount which can be absorbed by the planet (trees and oceans essentially) or by human invented carbon capture techniques. This is a good thing if you start with a low concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because it will remain the same. It also means that when you’re starting with a really high concentration of carbon dioxide it will, again, remain the same.

Try emptying your bathtub with the water still running. If the flow of water from the tap is the same as the flow of water into the drain, the level of the bathtub isn’t going to decrease.

I know this sounds trivial, but in aiming for net zero by 2050 we are saying that we are accepting the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels until then! And if we stop working on it in 2050, we are still nowhere near pre-industrial levels because the bathtub is still full.

I think this is widely misunderstood and I don’t know of any public policy which recognizes the need to have a plan post-2050. The necessity to aim for net-negative emissions as soon as possible (at the latest 2050) is clear when you realize that it is the only way to decrease current carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and return to some kind of pre-industrial equilibrium.

Please don’t think it’s over in 2050. We’ll only be at net zero.

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