What is net zero emissions? Meaning of the phrase explained - UK strategy, target and COP26 commitments

Chancellor Rishi Sunak claims the UK is leading the world in becoming the first "net zero aligned global financial centre"

The UK has committed to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

But what does that mean and what’s the strategy behind reaching that target?

Climate change is top of the agenda during COP26 where around 30,000 delegates from across the globe, including more than 100 of the world’s leaders, are discussing plans to reduce carbon emissions.

Here’s a look at how the UK plans to hit net zero and what it means...

What does net zero emissions mean?

Net zero is a phrase which is used by countries and businesses to describe the balance between its carbon output and the carbon it is removing from the atmosphere.

Net zero is reached when the amount of carbon or greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere is no more than the amount taken away, and is a term we’ll hear a lot more of in years to come.

Net zero vs carbon neutral

Both net zero and carbon neutral are phrases which are frequently used when talking about taking steps to ease the climate change crisis, but what is the difference between the two?

Carbon neutral is when a company balances out greenhouse gas emissions by offsetting the equivalent amount of carbon through ways such as buying carbon credits and supporting renewable energy products.

By adopting this path, the company doesn’t need to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions - only to offset the same amount, even if it is still rising.

Net zero is a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels removed - a balance between emissions produced and emissions removed.

Why are UK firms having to show net zero plans?

The UK has made a pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Ministers have underlined their commitment to achieving the net zero target by proposing to introduce new rules to ensure the country’s leading companies are making progress.

Companies with shares listed on the London Stock Exchange will need to set out in detail by 2023 plans to reduce carbon emissions in line with the UK’s 2050 target.

Reports will be scrutinised by an expert panel made up of industry leaders, academics, regulators and civil society groups.

The panel will set out standards the proposals need to meet to ensure they are serious about reaching net zero and avoid what is referred to as ‘greenwashing’.

Greenwashing is when a company uses marketing techniques to give a false impression to the public about how products and policies are environmentally friendly.

What’s been said about net zero plans at COP26?

The plans put forward by the Treasury will mean that all company intentions and policies will be published in a bid to increase transparency over the crisis.

Commitments made, however, will not be mandatory, prompting criticism from green groups.

At COP26, UK chancellor Rishi Sunak said changes would mean: "Better and more consistent climate data; sovereign green bonds; mandatory sustainability disclosures; proper climate risk surveillance; and proper global reporting standards."

Mr Sunak claimed the UK was leading the world in becoming the first "net zero aligned global financial centre", with 40% of global financial assets having aligned themselves to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

While ambition of the plans was praised, details of how it would work remain unclear.

Carbon Tracker Initiative founder and executive chair Mark Campanale told the BBC: "None of the financial assets announced are currently aligned with net-zero and no group of companies can say they are meeting the Paris target by continuing to invest in fossil fuels, so that needs to change considerably before London can be lauded as the world’s first net-zero financial centre and a model for the world."

How much money has been committed to reaching net zero?

A coalition of finance groups, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), said £95 trillion of private capital is committed to "transforming the economy for net zero".

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