What is Net Zero? A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Carbon Neutrality

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What is Net Zero

Addressing climate change is one of the most urgent issues of our time. As a result, governments, cities, and companies are increasingly setting "net zero" carbon emission targets to help mitigate global warming and its worst impacts. However, declaring ambitious climate goals is much easier than achieving real-world progress. This comprehensive guide aims to explain what net zero truly means and how different actors can work to offset carbon emissions across their full value chains.

What is Net Zero?  

In simple terms, reaching net zero carbon emissions means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere with the amount removed. For an entire economy or company, this means achieving a state where anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are balanced by absorptions due to natural or other means. 

The goal of net zero reflects the scientific consensus that human activities must achieve a balance between emissions and removals of greenhouse gases by 2050 to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement and limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C. While carbon neutrality or neutralizing direct emissions within organizational boundaries is an important step, true net zero encompasses both upstream and downstream indirect emissions throughout global supply chains.

What is Net Zero

Understanding Carbon Neutrality vs. Net Zero

Some key differences exist between carbon neutrality and net zero status:

- Carbon neutrality refers to offsetting an organization's direct emissions to zero through measures like purchasing carbon credits. It does not cover indirect emissions from suppliers or product use.

- Net zero has a broader scope and requires eliminating not just direct emissions, but also upstream and downstream indirect emissions along the entire value chain through deeper decarbonization efforts and carbon removal projects. 

- Carbon neutrality can be achieved in the short-term, while true net zero often requires a long-term plan to transition to renewable energy systems and new processes that drive indirect emissions toward zero over decades.

- Most experts agree carbon offsets should only be used as a temporary bridging measure, not a long-term solution, since the ultimate goal is to extract excess carbon from the atmosphere, not just offset continuing emissions.

How Actors Can Achieve Net Zero Emissions

There are several complementary strategies that organizations, industries, and economies must adopt to reach net zero carbon emissions at scale by 2050:

  • Renewable Energy Transition

Nearly complete decarbonization of the energy sector through wind, solar and other renewable technologies will be essential. Modeling suggests renewables may need to supply 70-85% of global electricity by 2050.

  • Electrification of Transport and Heating  

Transitioning vehicles, ships and planes to run on clean electricity and hydrogen where possible, as well as electrifying building heating systems, will significantly reduce emissions.

  • Energy Efficiency Upgrades

Improving efficiency in manufacturing, materials use, agriculture practices and other industries can curb emissions while boosting economic productivity.

  • Carbon Removal Technologies

While reducing emissions is critical, some level of carbon removal from the atmosphere will also be necessary through means like reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, direct air capture, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

  • Policy and Regulation

Ambitious climate policies, carbon pricing, building codes and green infrastructure investment from governments can help accelerate corporate and consumer behavior change at the pace required.

  • Tackling Scope 3 Emissions

Companies must work closely with suppliers to decarbonize procurement and set emissions reduction targets across the entire supply chain through coordination, incentives and partnerships. 

  • Adaptation and Resilience Measures

Building climate resilience in energy, agriculture, water and other natural resource systems must run alongside mitigation to prepare for climate impacts that can no longer be avoided. 

  • The Role of Carbon Offsets

During the initial transition period to 2030, high-quality carbon offsets certified to rigorous standards can play a limited and temporary role in compensating for hardest-to-abate residual emissions. However, the long-term focus for all actors must be on genuine emission reductions and carbon removal rather than perpetual offsetting of ongoing emissions.

What is Net Zero

What Companies Can Do

For companies aiming for net zero, a multi-pronged approach is needed that combines emissions monitoring and reporting, short-term offsetting if needed, deep internal and supply chain decarbonization efforts in line with a 1.5°C pathway, and financing credible carbon removal projects where residual emissions remain after 2030-2050.

Some key action steps include:

- Establishing a clear, independently verified baseline of Scope 1-3 emissions 

- Setting near-term 2030 emissions reduction targets in line with a 1.5°C pathway

- Developing a long-term roadmap for transitioning to zero emissions by 2050

- Transitioning operations and value chains to renewable energy where possible 

- Improving energy and materials efficiency throughout operations

- Engaging suppliers to set emissions reduction targets and collaborate on solutions

- Investing in carbon removal projects like reforestation to offset hard-to-abate residues

- Advocating for supportive public policies and infrastructure investments

- Disclosing emissions data and progress transparently to stakeholders

- External assurance of targets, reporting and progress against the 1.5°C trajectory

What is Net Zero

Frequently Asked Questions

Can offsets alone achieve net zero?

No, while offsets may play a temporary role, the long-term focus must be genuine reductions and removals rather than just offsetting ongoing emissions. 

What sectors will be hardest to decarbonize? 

Aviation, shipping, heavy industry and agriculture due to lack of immediate alternatives and reliance on fossil fuels. Carbon removal will likely be needed in these sectors.

How can developing countries achieve net zero?

Through technology transfer, climate finance for renewable energy scale-up, bypassing fossil fuel lock-in, sustainable urban planning and shifting to less meat and dairy-intensive diets where possible. 

Is net zero compatible with continued economic growth?

Yes, but growth will need to increasingly decouple from resource use through efficiency gains, circular economy practices, and deployment of low-carbon innovations that drive new sectors and jobs. 

How can individuals support net zero goals? 

Make low-carbon lifestyle choices, advocate for stronger climate policy, invest sustainably, and support carbon removal solutions through voluntary contributions or carbon farming.


Reaching net zero emissions by 2050 or sooner is an immense but essential challenge that requires coordinating efforts across all levels of society. With decisive action, falling clean technology costs, and a rising global consensus on the benefits of sustainable development, we believe a net zero future is within reach. But the transition must start now through rapid emissions reductions, robust policy frameworks, investment in key solutions, and cooperation between all stakeholders. By taking action together, we can mitigate the worst impacts of climate change and pave the way for a more prosperous, resilient and climate-safe world.


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