To reach vital global warming targets, over 100 countries have promised to reduce their emissions to net zero by 2050. How can each and every one of us contribute to this massive challenge?
Why is carbon such a problem?
Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) have been on the rise fairly steadily since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Human emissions have now risen to more than 35 billion metric tonnes per year. In fact, scientists now think that the last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was three million years ago.
Gases like CO2 are heat-trapping, meaning they collect heat in the atmosphere just like the glass in a greenhouse. The more greenhouse gases, the less heat escapes at night, and the planet heats up. The Earth’s average temperature has increased by roughly 1C since 1750.
What is net zero?
In 2015, countries met in France for a UN climate change conference. There, they adopted the Paris Agreement. Part of this included a goal to limit global warming to 1.5C, and one of the most ambitious plans for achieving this was to reduce emissions to net zero.
Lots of our daily activities like driving a car, heating our homes and eating a burger emit greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane. But carbon can also be absorbed by the Earth through grass, peatlands and the ocean. Net zero means that we will be putting the same amount of greenhouse gases into the air as we take out.
Which countries have made the promise?
More than 100 have committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Many include major emitters such as the UK, Japan and South Korea. Plus, the US hopes to rejoin the Paris Agreement once Joe Biden takes office.
China also plans to get to net zero by 2060. Responsible for 28% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, it will need to reduce its carbon by up to 90%. But many have hope because of the infrastructure already in place. One out of every three solar panels on the planet is in China, it is home to the largest hydroelectric dam in the world and 98% of its buses are electric.
How can individuals help?
One of the biggest ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to rethink how you travel. Jo Hand is an activist who runs a company helping people live sustainably. She advises taking public transport instead of driving, as well as walking or cycling whenever possible. But, according to her, the “biggest win” would be to cut out flying, which produces far more CO2 than any other form of transport.
Another way to make a difference is by changing how you shop. Choose to repair and recycle old clothes rather than buying new ones. Check the food miles on what you eat, and try to go to local shops as much as possible.
What about offsetting?
Countries, companies and individuals can all invest in offset schemes that remove the carbon created by their activity. For example, if you pay to offset a flight that you take, you can be sure that, somewhere, the carbon your flight released has been balanced out by a scheme to remove it.
The most popular offsetting activity is planting trees. It is the simplest and cheapest way to create a carbon sink. However, most experts agree that we cannot succeed simply by investing in trees and peat bogs. Taking responsibility to reduce our own carbon is just as important.
Will net zero be enough?
Some think no. In an open letter written in November last year, a group of public figures including, Dr Rowan Williams and Dr Shahrar Ali wrote an open letter urging companies and governments to go further. “No matter how quickly we reach zero emissions,” they wrote, “the terrible impacts of the climate crisis will not just go away.”
Others are more optimistic. One recent study found that if the 100 countries succeed in their promise to go carbon neutral, global warming will slow down dramatically. And, as one lecturer from Imperial College London says, once that target is reached, reducing will be much easier.
- Is it worth trying to reduce your individual carbon footprint, even though it might only make the tiniest of differences?
- Imagine you are the leader of a country with high carbon emissions. Come up with a list of five new laws that would dramatically reduce the problem and write a speech in which you announce them to the nation.
- Industrial Revolution
- A period of transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States – from about 1750 to sometime between 1820 and 1840.
- Three million years ago
- The last time levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide were this high came during the Pliocene Epoch, which extended from about 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago. During that period, average sea levels were about 50 feet higher than they are today and forests grew as far north as the Arctic.
- This makes up about half of the total greenhouse gases the beef and dairy cattle industry emits.
- President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement, a change which took affect the day after the presidential election last November.
- The president-elect hopes to do this during his first 100 days in office, a period of time often used to gauge the success of a new leader.
- The country is responsible for more emissions than the US and Europe put together.
- The basic physical and organisational structures and facilities – for example buildings, roads, power supplies – needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.
- Peat bogs
- Heathrow Airport has invested £94,000 in a project to restore peat bogs near Manchester. The goal was an aspect of the carbon offsetting that formed part of the airport’s controversial plan for a new runway.
- Dr Rowan Williams
- The former Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Dr Shahrar Ali
- A British politician and former deputy leader of the Green Party.