Zero Carbon

Updated: Jun 11

Dr Robin Russell-Jones: Marlow Energy Group (May 2020)


Before any commitment is made to becoming carbon neutral, it is important to have a clear understanding as to the definition of carbon neutral, zero carbon, and net zero carbon.

Zero carbon is defined as producing no man-made carbon emissions at all. This may be achievable for individuals who live off-grid and have forsaken all modern conveniences, but since every industrial process has a carbon footprint, it is perhaps hard to imagine how zero carbon can be achieved by organisations and companies, let alone by towns and cities. Even within a specific sector such as public transport it is difficult to be genuinely zero carbon. For example it is possible to run buses entirely on renewable energy; but bus shelters made of concrete and buses made of steel contribute significantly to the overall carbon footprint of public transport. Claims to be zero carbon usually involve only one aspect of the enterprise: ie travelling from A to B, and ignore the contribution to carbon emissions from manufacturing and construction. Equally individuals can claim zero carbon driving if they purchase an electric car powered by PV panels; but it is still necessary to ignore the carbon footprint involved in manufacturing the cars and the PV panels, let alone the concrete used in the building, platform or blocks to which they are attached. Zero carbon therefore involves a serious reappraisal of how society uses the resources at its disposal. It means using timber and recycled materials for construction rather than steel and cement.

Carbon Neutral

It is therefore argued that a more realistic goal is to become net zero carbon (which is synonymous with carbon neutral). It means balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal. This balance can be achieved firstly by reducing or eliminating man-made emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHG’s) at source (ie working towards zero carbon); and secondly by removing carbon. This can be achieved in several ways: either by capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground (eg Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS); removing carbon from the atmosphere (Direct air capture) or by locking up carbon in a carbon sink (eg tree planting/ soil sequestration).

CCS is a technology that is much trumpeted by the fossil fuel industry who seem to think that it will allow them to continue burning fossil fuels. However CCS is a technology still under development; it is very expensive and very energy intensive; and has not yet been deployed commercially anywhere in the world. Carbon sinks do benefit climate change in the short-term, for example whilst trees are growing, but it only locks up carbon temporarily as soil and trees are part of the natural carbon cycle. It is also undeniable that the only method of directly capturing carbon from the atmosphere is called photosynthesis, something that mankind has yet to replicate in a laboratory.

The bottom line is that reducing emissions at source is currently the only reliable method of mitigating climate change. This means that reducing a carbon footprint anywhere close to zero is a far more challenging enterprise than is generally understood, and requires a far more comprehensive and fundamental change in the way we do things than has been acknowledged by politicians or the media.

Carbon negative

It is theoretically possible to create an energy supply with a negative carbon footprint. Growing a biofuel captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. If CCS is used successfully to capture CO2 when the biofuel is burnt, then you have produced an energy source with is carbon negative (More CO2 is captured than is released). The biofuel could be grown on land, which displaces land for food production, or seaweed can be harvested from the marine environment. In both cases there is a problem with scalability.

Carbon Offsetting and carbon credits

When organisations invest in processes that reduce or remove carbon and other greenhouse gases, but which they do not themselves own, it is known as carbon offsetting. Thus a company could support a certified project in the developing world to replace diesel generators with batteries charged by PV panels. Unfortunately these schemes are often used by airlines and other fossil fuel dependent industries to claim carbon neutrality when they have made little or no effort to reduce their own emissions at source. For example diesel generators are still widely used to refuel planes! Airlines will then pass the costs of carbon offsetting to their passengers as a carbon levy. So they have done nothing to reduce their own emissions and their claim to be carbon neutral is also cost free.

Alternatively companies may purchase carbon credits through international or national emission trading schemes. Thus Amazon customers can voluntarily purchase carbon credits to offset the cost of transporting goods. James Hansen has described carbon credits as being equivalent to medieval indulgences whereby individuals with a guilty conscience ensure freedom from climate sin.

Carbon credits were modelled on “cap and trade” programmes that were introduced to reduce sulphur emissions. In the seventies and eighties, coal-fired power stations were contributing to air pollution and acid rain, and firms that were unable to comply with new legislation were allowed to continue operating provided they purchased sulphur credits. As emission standards were tightened the financial penalties increased, so the costs of purchasing credits became uneconomic, and power companies either fitted desulphurisation equipment, or purchased low sulphur coal. However this model has not worked well for carbon, as the market price has never been high enough to force companies to minimise their emissions (usually fluctuating between 5-10Euros /Tonne CO2e). At the same time countries with large forests, such as Russia, were allocated a huge number of carbon credits simply for not felling trees. So they were paid to do nothing, and continued to pollute.

Nowadays the carbon credit market is better regulated. The EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) was established in 2005 as the first international carbon trading scheme and claims to have reduced carbon emissions to date by 21% from those sectors participating in the scheme. However the carbon trading price is falling because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and will fall further after Brexit as the market will be flooded with unwanted UK carbon credits. In addition, because ETS schemes are not applied globally, companies may elect to move production to countries where no ETS operates.

The bottom line is that a UN-mandated carbon tax would have been a much more effective instrument for controlling carbon emissions globally than a carbon trading scheme, bur a carbon tax has always been fiercely resisted by countries that export fossil fuels, or rely heavily on fossil fuels at home (Notably: Australia, Indonesia, India and China for coal; US, Russia and Qatar for gas, and Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kuwait for oil).

Carbon neutral pledges

Thus far around 26 countries have pledged to become net zero carbon with target dates ranging from 2030 (Norway) to 2100 (Japan). In some cases these pledges are no more than policy statements. In other cases they are pledges made under the Paris Agreement, but still non-binding. Only 4 countries have made legally binding commitments: The UK and New Zealand have passed legislation to become net zero carbon by 2050, Sweden by 2045 and Norway by 2030. Two countries claim to be carbon neutral already (Bhutan and Suriname).

Towns, cities and counties are also rushing to pledge carbon neutrality, often without any clear idea as to what this means or how it will be achieved. Mainly the intention is to be lower carbon than previously in areas over which they actually have control. So it is a commitment to take climate change into consideration when considering planning applications etc. However they are still bound by Government legislation, so cannot ban polluting vehicles, or insist on zero carbon for all new buildings. They might consider carbon offsetting as a means of achieving carbon neutrality, but at best this is a diversion, and at worst would evoke a backlash from rate-payers.

Even so a pledge to become carbon neutral does create the landscape for sustained improvement. The challenge is to make sure this happens quickly rather than incrementally, and this requires constant pressure on local authorities and repeated publicity on radio television and social media. It also needs to be a community effort with involvement by schools, businesses and churches. An important component of pressurising rapid decarbonisation is to undertake an independent audit of progress, and publicise this on an annual basis. Initially councils will pick the low-hanging fruit, but each audit will demand a more radical approach and hopefully create a climate in which it becomes progressively easier to take the more fundamental decisions.



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