What Is Carbon Neutrality?Published on 12.22.2020
5 min read
France and the European Union want to achieve it by 2050. China has its sights set on 2060. So what exactly is this carbon neutrality that countries are aspiring to?
Two Sides of the Scales
Carbon neutrality aims to achieve a balance between:
- On one side, the amount of “greenhouse gases” (GHGs) released into the atmosphere by human activities, which contribute to .
- On the other side, the amount of greenhouse gases that can be removed from the atmosphere naturally thanks to forests, soils and oceans, or artificially using man-made technologies.
The Emissions Side
Greenhouse gases mainly include gases that contain carbon molecules, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. “Anthropogenic” production (i.e., caused by humans) of these gases has significantly increased since the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century.
One of the reasons for soaring emissions is the boom in fossil production ( , oil and gas), transportation use, housing construction and the development of industrial, farming and technological processes. Another cause is changes in land use, particularly tropical deforestation to make space for crops, livestock and mines.
The Removal Side
On the other side, CO2 in the atmosphere is absorbed by a natural phenomenon known as and stored (or “sequestrated”) in carbon “sinks”. The biggest such sinks are oceans, soils, grasslands, forests and, more generally speaking, vegetation. We can influence this natural absorption capacity by preserving, restoring or strengthening carbon sinks. Unfortunately, human activities can also destroy or reduce it.
On a smaller scale, there is also the possibility of artificial sequestration, which involves capturing CO2 – especially from the highest-emitting industrial facilities such as plants, cement works and steel mills –, transporting it to a suitable geological site and injecting it there for storage for thousands of years. Captured can also be recycled as a feedstock for other industrial activities.
Two Complementary Approaches
There are two ways to achieve this balance (also called “net zero emissions”):
- Le Cutting emissions by improving in industry and agriculture, using non-fossil energy sources, reducing consumption and, as an extreme measure, potentially even moving toward economic “degrowth”.
- Increasing the planet’s absorption capacity by limiting deforestation and marine pollution or – in the future – by storing huge quantities of CO2 underground.
These methods will all have to be used together. It is estimated that natural carbon sinks eliminate around 10 gigatons (or 10 billion metric tons) of CO2 every year, whereas annual global CO2 emissions exceeded 37 gigatons in 2017. Put side by side, these two figures show just how far we still have left to go.