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Net Zero by 2050 - what's the rush?

If we need to hit Net Zero by 2050, what’s the rush now? Not many people realise that to limit damaging climate change, emissions must be halved before 2030. The race to ‘Net Fifty’ is on…

What does ‘Net Zero’ actually mean?

Many activities - from driving a car to raising a herd of beef cattle - create carbon or other greenhouse gasses, such as methane. These trap heat in the atmosphere. These sorts of ‘carbon positive’ activities trap heat in the atmosphere, causing climate change.

However some activities are actually ‘carbon negative’, removing carbon from the atmosphere. Freshly planted trees suck up carbon as they grow, and future technologies will allow us to actively capture and store carbon from the atmosphere.

Net Zero means carbon positive activities can be cancelled out by those which are carbon negative. This is a realistic approach because for a small number of industries decarbonisation is not yet realistic (such as aviation or farming).

An ‘absolute zero’ target would mean that no carbon could be emitted at all – not much use if aircraft still need oil-based fuel and farm animals still ‘emit’ gases!

Heating up

As increasing carbon levels cause the earth to warm, sea levels will rise and plant and animal species will struggle to survive in a climate they are not adapted to. Humanity needs to stop adding carbon to the atmosphere.

Before humans started emitting carbon on a large scale, levels were at around 280 parts per million ‘ppm’. In 2016 levels of carbon increased above 400ppm for the first time in history, and continue to rise steeply.

Almost all the world’s nations signed up to the UN Paris Agreement in 2015, committing to limiting global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius, but ideally 1.5 degrees. To do this, the world will need to hit Net Zero emissions by 2050.

We’re rushing for ‘Net Fifty’ in 2030

Reaching net zero by 2050 seems simple enough, but if we wait until the very last minute before reducing emissions, huge amounts of carbon will escape in to the atmosphere over the next 30 years, trapping in more heat.

The UN is clear that keeping global warming below 2 degrees will be impossible unless emissions are halved (from 2010 levels) by 2030. You could call this target ‘Net Fifty’!

The below graph shows why reaching ‘Net Fifty’ so important. The space below the red and green lines represents the total amount of carbon emitted between 2010 and 2050.

In scenario 2, the extra carbon emitted would mean we are unable to keep warming below 2 degrees.

The race to Net Fifty is on…

The need to steeply reduce emissions by 2030 is now urgent. In the UK, emissions have fallen 29% since 2010, but many of the easiest emissions savings have already been made, such as switching off coal power plants and using newer gas boilers.

Progress urgently needs to be made in some of the more challenging areas – such as increasing the numbers of electric vehicles and fully insulating millions of homes.

The race to Net Fifty is on…