Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

What Do Net-Zero Emissions Pledges Really Mean?

Ørsted’s Tunø Knob offshore windfarm (). RhinoMind. CC-BY-SA 4.0. ()

George Harvey

There is some good news on emissions. According to, 136 countries, 111 regions, 235 cities, and 681 large companies have made net-zero pledges. That covers 90% of the gross domestic products and 85% of the people on Earth.

Before we rest too easily, we should take a deeper look at what all that means. It is clearly possible that some of those emissions are going to net-zero only in the projections on paper, and might not go to net-zero in the real world. Unfortunately, the reasons that failures could happen are many, and the failures can happen in many ways, some of them not all that visible.

As a concept, the goal of net-zero emissions is not difficult to understand. It means that you might still have greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but you are making up for them by removing an equal value of emissions elsewhere.

For example, if you are operating at net-zero and you want to fly to Europe, you could plant a number of trees to make up for the carbon emissions of the trip by drawing carbon dioxide (CO₂) out of the atmosphere. There are a couple of problems with this that are pretty easy to understand. The little trees will have to grow for years before they can draw down much CO₂. They can also burn down in a wildfire, putting the CO₂ back into the atmosphere, something that happened to trees Microsoft planted.

Things get more complicated than that when we examine the actions of companies and countries. To understand this, we should look at the various categories of emissions.

Level 1 emissions are those that are released directly by the consumer organization. Emissions from the use of heating oil is one example. The products arising when Gasoline is burned in a car is another.

Level 2 emissions are those that are released to make energy that the organization uses. Emissions connected to electricity or steam that is purchased for heat are examples.

Level 3 emissions are those that are emitted in the value chain of an organization’s products. For example; if food sold in a supermarket is grown by hand, does not use pesticides, and is grown locally, the supermarket’s level 3 emissions associated with that food would be very low, in contrast to level 3 emissions of conventionally-grown food brought in from far away. An oil company’s level 3 emissions would be high because of the nature of its product.


Let’s take a look at that. The company extracting oil, the refiner, the pipeline owner, delivery truck owner, and so on all have that oil in the level 3 emissions. It sounds like it is counted several times over. Actually, it is, and each operation in the chain should be aware that it has to be reduced. But it is the level 1 emitter who ultimately has control of whether the emission happens. If you drive a gasmobile, you are a level 1 emitter, and it is an issue you control.

On the other hand, let’s look at a peat harvest. That looks pretty good from a cursory point of view. But a closer look tells us that peat removes a lot of CO₂ from the air. Removing it from the bog to use on a garden will ultimately allow that CO₂ to enter the atmosphere again, as a level 1 emission of the gardener. Leave it in the bog, and the peat does better drawing down carbon than an equal area of forest.

And sadly, that is just the beginning of the complexity of the net-zero story. Another, much more important issue is that the speed at which net-zero is approached has a huge impact on the planet. Here, we can go into the real meat of the issue.

Suppose a big oil company says it will have net zero emissions by 2050. And suppose its plan is to sell as much oil as possible until 2045 and then sell everything it owns, distribute the money to its shareholders, and go out of business. That is a plan for net-zero by 2050. It is also so disingenuous that we might best call it a hoax.

We are not trying to say that net-zero is a useless goal. We are trying to point out that it has to be transparently planned in such a way to reduce emissions of GHGs as quickly as possible.

There are companies that have already made major progress, and these could be held up as examples. A really good example is Danish Oil and Natural Gas. That name described its business, until it decided to go clean. It started to convert to renewable energy, not just to power its operations but to sell the electricity it made. It changed its name to DONG. Since then, it has divested its last holdings in fossil fuels and changed its name to Ørsted. Now it is the largest owner of offshore wind farms in the world.

We can do this. But we have to be smart.

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