“Net zero carbon” seems to be the new catch phrase in discussions on climate change action, but what does it mean, and is it just green wash?
It’s fair to say there are different interpretations of what ‘net zero’ means, and some frankly dubious claims being made about appropriate pathways to net zero. That said, there are good guidelines available which set boundaries and standards for robust net Zero plans, such as PAS 2060 and the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).
The University sees Net Zero Carbon as meaning:
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as little as possible and then balancing the remainder by enhancing carbon sinks which remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere’
So just how little is ‘as little as possible’ and why is the idea of ‘net’ carbon important? Right now, some activities simply do not have genuine zero carbon alternatives. For the University, this particularly means international travel, and whilst the current pandemic undoubtedly underlines what can be achieved with alternative online technologies, it is also highlighting some of the limitations of such approaches. Also, a proportion of the University’s international travel is for on-the-ground research – not really practical to achieve over the world wide web. So once international travel begins again, counteracting the carbon emissions associated with this travel will require some form of carbon capture to ‘net’ off the emissions with an equivalent amount of absorbed carbon. This will however be accompanied by ambitious plans to reduce travel, or take less carbon intensive travel modes, wherever reasonable alternatives exist.
There is no perfect way to approach carbon capture or ‘offsetting’, but again, there are standards available to follow, such as through Gold Standard projects. The University aims to develop its own carbon ‘insetting’ programme, through improved land management practices to capture an equivalent amount of carbon each year as are emitted from its business travel. There is much to learn here, and it will be a few years before a fully developed programme is embedded, but the University has some world leading expertise in this field. Done well, this can support some exciting research opportunities and hopefully have wide applicability for the local area, the higher education sector and beyond.
Some institutions have taken the approach of excluding such emissions from their targets. There may be a number of reasons for this, for example because this only forms a small part of their footprint. However, at Reading, we believe that excluding these emissions would be to ignore a large emission source over which we have some considerable control. For this reason, ‘net zero’ becomes essential, and in setting a target date of 2030, we believe we are setting one of the most ambitious targets in the sector. Our programme will also be developed to comply with the SBTi.
Easy as A B C
Delivering our Net Zero Carbon Plan won’t be easy, but a simple A, B, C mantra underpins our plans:
- All heating systems to be replaced with low/zero carbon alternatives
- Better electrical energy – reducing waste, improving efficiency and ensure electrical supplies are as low carbon as possible and
- Capping and capturing business travel emissions, including through policy and technology alternatives and carbon insetting/offsetting
We will need to develop our understanding further as the decade progresses on whether the above steps will leave some residual emissions. In particular, grid electricity is unlikely to be completely decarbonised by 2030, and as well as our existing commitments to expanding our onsite generation and sourcing zero carbon electricity supply contracts, some further interventions may be required, such as perhaps a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with a local renewable energy generator.
We will need to seek significant external investment to make this a reality, and have already done some significant background work in this area.
We planned to publish our formal Net Zero Carbon Plan in summer 2020, but the COVID-19 outbreak has not only delayed some of this work, it has made it necessary to rethink some of our approaches in light of what we have learned. In the months ahead, we look forward to sharing more details on our Net Zero Carbon ambitions, and continuing to build on our 44% (pre-COVID) emission reduction since 2008/09.
The terms ‘carbon’ and ‘carbon dioxide’ are used interchangeably in this article as shorthand for ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ greenhouse gases.