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What is carbon neutrality and how to achieve it

The goals of the Paris Agreement include achieving carbon neutrality. What does it mean and what needs to be done to achieve it

In recent decades, climate change has become the top priority on the political agenda of governments and international institutions. The increasing greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to global temperature rise, with devastating consequences for the environment, biodiversity, and human well-being.

In the study and implementation of strategies to combat climate change, the concepts of carbon neutrality and climate neutrality are central.

Carbon neutrality refers to the balance between carbon emissions and the absorption of emissions by natural carbon sinks. According to the official explanation of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), carbon neutrality is achieved when anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are offset by an equal amount of reduced, avoided, or sequestered emissions within a specific timeframe.

This is achieved through the use of renewable energy sources and by implementing carbon absorption strategies, such as reforestation and carbon capture and storage.

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Climate Neutrality: Meaning

The term carbon neutrality refers solely to carbon dioxide emissions and represents a state of balance between CO2 emitted into the atmosphere and CO2 removed. To better understand its meaning, a specific technical explanation of achieving a balance between emissions and carbon absorption is necessary.

When carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, it is referred to as carbon sequestration or immobilization; to achieve this, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be offset by the absorption of carbon emissions. Natural absorption sinks such as soil, forests, and oceans come into play. According to estimates, natural sinks remove between 9.5 and 11 Gt of CO2 per year. However, no artificial absorption sink is currently capable of removing the necessary amount of carbon from the atmosphere to effectively combat global warming.

Additionally, carbon stored in natural sinks is released into the atmosphere through fires, land use changes, or deforestation. Therefore, to achieve carbon neutrality, it is crucial to reduce carbon emissions.

The European Union aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 and to become carbon neutral, meaning to eliminate its CO2 emissions. This goal is part of the strategy defined as the European Green Deal, in line with the Paris Agreement and the EU’s commitment to combating climate change and decarbonization.

How to Achieve Carbon Neutrality

To achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, industries can adopt various solutions, including:

  • the use of renewable energies: solar, wind, or hydroelectric energy allows for energy production without greenhouse gas emissions. Companies can invest in renewable energy generation equipment or purchase green electricity from renewable energy suppliers;
  • implementation of carbon capture and storage systems: this reduces greenhouse gas emissions from heavy industries (chemical, steel, or cement industries). This solution involves capturing the CO2 emitted during production and storing it in underground tanks or using it to generate energy;
  • promoting the circular economy: reducing waste and reusing resources where possible (material recycling, waste production reduction, etc.);
  • supply chain optimization: companies can collaborate with their suppliers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with raw material production. This could involve increased use of sustainable raw materials, more environmentally friendly agricultural practices, or a reduction in emissions related to raw material transportation;
  • implementation of sustainable work practices: reducing business travel, promoting telecommuting, or using remote communication technologies. These practices help reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with business travel.

The transition to carbon neutrality cannot happen overnight but requires strong and sustained commitment from industries.

Why is it Necessary to Offset Carbon Dioxide and Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The need to offset carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions stems from a series of fundamental reasons.

Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and has played a crucial role in creating and maintaining conditions suitable for life on Earth. Its ability to trap atmospheric heat has been essential in regulating the planet’s temperature, thus enabling the development of life as we know it.

However, over the past 50 years, the excessive accumulation of CO2, mainly due to human activities, has contributed to a significant increase in the global average temperature, exceeding 2°C. This increase has led and continues to cause a series of devastating consequences, including glacier melting, extreme weather events such as floods and typhoons, prolonged drought periods, and loss of biodiversity.

Therefore, it is essential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to effectively combat climate change and pursue the goals set by the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate. Only through such efforts will it be possible to avoid irreversible damage to the health of our planet and its inhabitants.

Carbon Neutrality and Net Zero Emissions: Differences

Carbon neutrality and net-zero emissions are both used to indicate important goals to address climate change. Being very similar to each other, their meanings are often confused, and they are mistakenly used as synonyms:

  • carbon neutrality: as seen, a process or company is considered carbon neutral when it achieves a balance between CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere and those removed or absorbed; only anthropogenic CO2 emissions are considered, with no reference to greenhouse gas emissions;
  • net-zero: indicates the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the entire production chain of a company, a state, or the entire world. Today, it is more often used to indicate the commitment that the world’s major countries have made to decarbonize by 2050.

Climate Neutrality: What it Means

The concept of climate neutrality is very similar to that of carbon neutrality but extended to all greenhouse gases (not just carbon dioxide). It refers to balancing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions with the removal or absorption of these gases from the atmosphere.

How to Achieve Climate Neutrality: Fit For 55

To achieve climate neutrality, concrete and challenging actions by institutions are essential. A significant initiative aimed at promoting the transition to a low-carbon society is the Fit for 55 package. Fit for 55 is a package of reforms presented by the European Commission in 2021 and is part of the Green Deal.

It consists of a set of legislative proposals that aim to reduce carbon emissions by 55% by 2030 and make the European Union climate-neutral by 2050. These are ambitious measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote the use of renewable energies, energy efficiency, and sustainable mobility.

One key proposal of the package concerns strengthening the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). This system is based on the allocation and trading of emission allowances, which companies must purchase if they exceed certain emission limits. The package foresees a gradual reduction in the number of available allowances, thus accelerating the emission reduction process.

Furthermore, the Fit for 55 package introduces measures to promote clean energy and energy efficiency, increasing the renewable energy target to 40% by 2030 and introducing new energy efficiency standards for the construction and transport sectors. These measures incentivize businesses to transition to clean energy sources and green technologies, promoting responsible use of energy resources.

The package also focuses on sustainable mobility, aiming to reduce emissions in the transport sector by introducing stricter emission standards for motor vehicles, expanding charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, and enhancing rail transport. These measures foster a cleaner transportation system and reduce the environmental impact of mobility.

Finally, another important aspect concerns the climate change adaptation strategy, proposing measures to strengthen infrastructure resilience, protect natural ecosystems, and promote sustainable agriculture. These actions are essential to address the current and future impacts of climate change, ensuring a resilient society.

Carbon Neutrality: Benefits

Achieving carbon neutrality offers a series of environmental and social benefits:

  • reduction of environmental impact: carbon neutrality helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2, which are among the main causes of the greenhouse effect and climate change. By reducing emissions, it contributes to lowering global temperatures and combating climate change, preventing extreme weather events;
  • improvement of air quality: reducing greenhouse gas emissions also leads to a decrease in related air pollutants, including substances harmful to human health and the environment;
  • stimulus for innovation and sustainable technology: the path to carbon neutrality requires the adoption of sustainable technologies. This involves the development and implementation of new technological solutions that not only help mitigate environmental impact but can also generate economic opportunities and create new jobs in clean technologies and innovation.