Net-zero emissions

77 countries have committed to reaching “net-zero” emissions by 2050 [1]. What exactly does this mean?

“Net-zero” means that we keep the overall amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere the same [6,7,8]. Greenhouse gas emissions come from many sources including energy generation (59% of global CO2 emissions), transport (16%), and agriculture, land use and forestry (8%) [2]. In many cases we can reduce emissions from these industries, for example by using low-carbon energy sources, like nuclear and renewables [3,12,13,16].

However, to stop temperatures from continuing to rise we need to have zero CO2 emissions overall [4,7]! It’s not possible to bring emissions from all these processes down to zero [17]. But we don’t want to stop doing all the things that cause emissions either! We need another solution, and taking CO2 back out of the atmosphere could be the answer [5]. To reach “net-zero”, any greenhouse gas that we release must be removed again [6,7,8].

Each country’s net-zero commitment has its own terms and conditions [14,15]. For example, the UK’s commitment excludes emissions from: international flights and shipping, UK overseas territories, burning of biomass like wood and chicken litter for energy production, and critically, production of goods and services imported from other countries [9].

Counting only emissions produced directly from your own country is standard practice [10]. This raises the concern that richer countries like the UK could reach net-zero whilst encouraging emission production in other countries [11].


[1] See: Penultimate paragraph

[2] See: Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by sector

[3] See: CO2 intensity of economies

[4] See: Section 3.2.3, paragraph 3

[5] See: Box 3.3, page 89

[6] Paragraph 3

[7] See: Should the net-zero target be for CO₂ or all GHGs?


[9] See: They exclude emissions or removals from

[10] See: 4. Equity considerations, Box 3.3

[11] See: What about emissions embedded in imports?






[17] See: 13.2 The value of CCS

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