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What is the difference between net zero and net positive carbon emissions?

For more than 7 years now, we, as humanity, have had a clear common goal: to reduce our carbon emissions by mid-century.

Specifically, the Paris Agreement, signed and ratified by 194 countries and the European Union, sets the goal of achieving net zero global emissions by 2050 as a fundamental requirement to stabilize our planet's climate and thus prevent global temperatures from exceeding 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

But what exactly does this mean? And, perhaps most pressing, will it be enough to save the planet from an unprecedented climate crisis?

Net zero carbon emissions

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a natural component of our planet. The oceans themselves, animals and even plants emit CO2 and, in turn, nature has a number of mechanisms to absorb it, mainly through photosynthesis and the oceans. The imbalance occurs when we take into account the human factor: nature alone does not have the capacity to absorb the extraordinary amounts of CO2 that human activity, especially industrial, agro-industrial, livestock, energy and transportation, generates. In turn, excessive deforestation significantly reduces the planet's natural CO2 absorption capacity.

The accumulation of CO2 in our atmosphere is the main cause of the increase in global temperature, which is why most of the major objectives aimed at solving the climate crisis revolve around these emissions.

In this context, achieving net zero carbon emissions means achieving a balance between the CO2 that is expelled and that which is absorbed, eliminating the environmental impact of a given activity (at least in terms of carbon dioxide emissions). Thus, the Paris Agreement aims for the entire planet to become a net zero CO2 emitter by 2050, with the goal of limiting climate change.

How? There are two ways in which countries and industries can achieve net zero:

  • By reducing their emissions: through investments in development and research, implementing new cleaner technologies that help reduce the amount of emissions related to the same activity.

  • Offsetting: through investments in carbon offsetting programs, offsetting the emissions produced. A great example of this type of actions are investments in reforestation and renewable energy programs.

Both actions are complementary, not exclusive. In fact, given that most developing countries do not have the means to invest in new clean technologies or a large enough offsetting infrastructure to make a significant impact, it is critical that large companies and governments in developed countries focus on offsetting as well as reducing.

Net positive carbon emissions

Although the term is relatively new, you will probably hear it a lot in the coming years (and probably decades). Net positive carbon emission refers to the fact that, by the sum of offsetting actions, a given industry, company, entity or government absorbs more CO2 than it releases into the atmosphere. This will be the next step on the road to a sustainable planet.

This is how most authoritative voices on climate change are defining it: it will not be enough to go net zero, but in the future, especially from 2050 onwards, we will have to ensure that the sum of our planet's industries absorb more (considerably more) CO2 than they release, in order to ensure long-term climate stability.

One example of such a target is the US giant Microsoft, which in early 2020 announced its plan to become carbon positive (net positive) by 2030 and, what's more, pledged to eliminate the equivalent of all the CO2 emitted by the company since 1975 by 2050. How does it do this? Since 2012 it has implemented an internal carbon tax on all its business units, obliging each of its areas to offset its own emissions. Almost all of the proceeds are then reinvested in clean and renewable energies.

The salvation of our planet, in any case, is not (and should not be) solely in the hands of large companies, not even governments: we, the individuals, can also do our part, we can become net-zero or even net-positive emitters. It is just a matter of making an effort to reduce the CO2 emissions associated with our activities and our consumption and, if we have the possibility, to offset our emissions. Everything we do for a cleaner, more stable and sustainable planet is a big step in the right direction.

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