By John Pooley,
Vice-President, Program Development for 360 Energy
Many businesses are publicly committing to achieving “Net Zero” carbon emissions. Canada has set this as a goal to reach by 2050. What does this commitment mean? How will they do it?
This introductory guide is intended to explain what the “net zero” concept means and what is needed to achieve it.
To start, the language used can often be confusing. We need a clear definition:
“Net zero” carbon emissions achieve an overall balance between greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced into the atmosphere and GHG emissions removed from the atmosphere.
One way to describe this balance is to use the analogy of filling a bathtub. We plug the drain, turn on the taps and fill the tub until the level is right for taking a bath.
If the taps cannot be turned off, there is a problem. The bathtub will overflow.
To avoid this outcome, we first turn the taps down as far as we possibly can. The level will still rise. We have to pull the plug. When the drain is letting out the exactly the same amount as the taps are letting in, we have balance – our bathtub is at net zero!
In the same way, we humans are filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide (CO₂) as a by-product of using fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and gasoline. We cannot turn off carbon emissions completely – at least not yet. We also need to find ways to take CO₂ out of the atmosphere by for example, planting trees, storing it underground or using carbon in construction and fabrication materials.
So, why does the world need to achieve net zero carbon emissions?
It is undisputed science that GHGs, like C0₂, trap energy and heat up the earth’s atmosphere. The consensus of scientists is that the increase in GHGs related to human activity are the problem. Simply, we need to reduce carbon emissions to avoid unwanted impacts on our way of life.
It is currently thought the worst outcomes can be avoided if average global temperatures rise to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. We are already at +1.0°C.
At the global level we need to balance GHG production and removal to achieve net zero. But how does this operate for a single entity, such as a corporation?
When a corporation commits to net zero carbon emissions, they are saying they will not contribute any further increase to global GHG levels. To achieve that goal requires an in-depth knowledge of all the carbon emissions associated with that business. This is where it gets complex!
All organisations have direct and indirect carbon emissions.
Direct emissions are under the direct control of the organisation. For example, natural gas burnt in a furnace, fuel used by a trucking fleet.
Electricity is a different matter. Companies have direct control over the amount of electricity they use, but not over its production. That occurs in a power plant. The carbon emissions produced from electricity generation are considered the indirect responsibility of the power consumer.
In GHG accounting there are three Scopes: Scope 1 counts the direct emissions from the operation; Scope 2 counts emissions from grid electricity. Scope 2 can also include district heating, cooling or steam supply; Scope 3 counts all other emissions.
It is straightforward to quantify Scope 1 & 2 emissions. Quantifying Scope 3 emissions is complex. Arguably, Scope 3 emissions are somebody else’s Scope 1 & 2 emissions. If we all addressed our Scope 1 & 2 emissions, we would bring about net zero. Counting Scope 3 emissions requires a fuller engagement with the supply chain.
An energy management process that tracks and reports energy use is necessary for delivering critical information on carbon emissions.
Using our bathtub analogy, you use energy management to ‘turn down the taps’ on carbon emissions. You ‘open the drain’ by buying carbon offsets. Clearly the most cost-effective element is reduction of energy use.
If you need to make sense of Net Zero carbon emissions, 360 Energy has a comprehensive set of tools that can be used to deliver a customized carbon reduction program. You can watch our webinar here to learn more.