Starting the journey to net zero
(Image source: Marek Piwnicki, Unsplash)
Time is ticking by fast.
We have an estimated 10 years left until the carbon budget – the amount of carbon emissions we can emit whilst limiting global warming to 1.5°C – is exhausted. Until recently, carbon emissions were targeted through the reduction of emissions per product. However, there has been a paradigm shift: the focus is now on the reduction of absolute carbon emissions for the entire volume of production. This shift is due to the increased focus on the planetary boundaries of climate change, defined by the amount of GHG we can release in the atmosphere, which is expressed in weight of CO2 equivalent. Among the planetary boundaries, climate change is one of the most significant boundaries where the industry has a significant role to play.
The reduction of carbon- and GHG emissions is widely discussed and addressed by governments and industries worldwide in order to preserve a liveable common space to operate in. The transition to greater sustainability is a hugely complex process and encompasses more than the need to address the current state of emissions.
With this article we aim to explain the importance for the industry and individual companies to understand their impact on climate change and how in turn climate change will affect them through the disruption of the environment.
The state and need to change of carbon emissions is one of many factors that need to be addressed in the transition to greater sustainability (Image source: Jan Konietzko)
GHG Emissions and Climate Change
Since the Industrial Revolution the amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere has significantly increased. Rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere can be correlated to human activities of the past 50 years. Global temperatures have risen as well as ocean temperatures and sea levels, ice sheets have shrunk, glaciers are retreating almost everywhere in the world, the oceans undergo acidification, and we have witnessed extreme weather events. There is an increasingly wide consensus in the scientific community of anthropogenic green-house gases (GHGs) being a significant driver of climate change. Anthropogenic emissions are a result from or produced by human activities including the burning of fossil fuels.
CO2 is widely discussed and reported as the most important anthropogenic GHG since it accounts for the majority of anthropogenic warming due to the burning of fossil fuels and stays in the atmosphere for 300 to 1000 years. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is not the only GHG that has increased in concentration in the atmosphere. Methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N20) have also increased as a result from human activities, including waste decomposition in landfills, and during combustion of solid waste and fossil fuels. Even though those gases are emitted in much lower volumes, each molecule we release has a greater global warming potential than that of CO2.
Carbon Reduction in a World Fuelled with Growth
Carbon dioxide is stored in many locations including plants, oceans, rocks, and fossil fuels. The carbon naturally flows between each of these locations (carbon cycle). Natural carbon sinks such as forests and oceans typically absorb more carbon than they release. Human activities and the increased amount of carbon in the atmosphere are changing the carbon cycle. The industry is amongst the key sources of emissions alongside the transportation and building sectors, so in the same way can greatly contribute to tackling this issue.
Businesses’ progress is coupled to the concept of growth. But business as usual is no longer an option, as it is linked with extractive destruction. A sufficient absolute decoupling of growth from resource intensity can only happen with disruptive innovation led by the industry, incentivised by the governments and supported by the consumer. The planetary boundaries approach associates the concept of progress to a balance between using resources to meet our current needs and protecting the planet’s life supporting system in the future. The Circular Economy concept and resource value retention frameworks facilitate this.
Understanding the ‘’Targets’’ Terminology
Many companies will claim their activities to be ‘’zero-emissions’’, ‘’climate neutral’’, or ‘’Net Zero’’. According to the IPCC, the world must be Net Zero by 2050 to remain consistent with the 1.5C scenario. What do these terms actually mean? These terms are often still used interchangeably, and there doesn’t appear to be a strong consensus on their definition, however, we can start with the definitions from the Oxford Net Zero initiative:
States of a system’s emissions linked to an actor’s activities: What do they mean?
How can companies contribute? What can they rigorously claim? The most direct contribution to our planet reaching Net Zero is a reduction of emissions linked to the company. The decrease rate is framed by national and international laws, depending on the sector of the company.
Environmental and Climate Policies Pressuring Businesses to Act
The passing of EU Green Deal and its goal to reach Climate Neutrality by 2050 has been followed by the development of frameworks and climate laws with industry as a key stakeholder. For example, the German Federal climate protection act, passed in 2019, includes fixed level targets for CO2 equivalent emissions related to the energy industry, a national carbon tax, as well as pushing the carbon neutrality target to 2045. In Germany, in order to reach -65% carbon emissions by 2030, the target set for the industry is -58% in comparison to 2019. For France, a sectorial target of -63% is set for industry, to achieve the national target of -43% carbon emissions by 2030. Risks of EU-based companies shifting emissions to countries with less stringent environmental and climate policies (‘’carbon leakage’’) is addressed by the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. Furthermore, the EU taxonomy regulation encourages businesses to rethink their operations in terms of environmental sustainability in order to stand out positively compared to their competitors and benefit from investments. Limiting a company’s emissions indirectly preserve the business from dependency on fossil fuels and instability of energy prices, by controlling energy demand. Long-term company sustainability can be thoroughly supported by a reasoned environmental approach to business, as talents and investors will be attracted to an enhanced image and positioning of the company, promoting your actions to your employees, customers and funders.
Start by Understanding your Footprint and Setting (Science-based) Targets
In order to address the footprint of your business you will to first need to be able to assess your current state. It starts by understanding your scopes and start measuring:
· Scope 1: direct emissions of the company, associated with energy consumption
· Scope 2: indirect emissions, associated with energy purchased by a company and linked to its activities
· Scope 3: indirect emissions not produced by the company, but associated with its upstream and downstream activities
Different scopes of emissions in a company (Source: GHG Protocol and Carbone 4)
Road to Net Zero
When you are clear on your current footprint, the next steps then include pledging, and planning. Set targets aligned with what the latest climate science deems necessary and in line with global efforts to limiting global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels with no or low overshoot. Targets should cover all scopes of a company. Once you have your trajectory in place you can start taking action.
Measuring your carbon footprint enables you to identify problems and make changes. Companies often find challenges in the accuracy and availability of the data needed to assess their footprint. Make sure to find support for managing your data, as well as for setting achievable targets and computing the fair and right trajectory you need to follow to achieve them.
Angѐle Bertin | eolos Business Analyst