It is looking increasingly likely, but not a given, that a reference to global net-zero emissions or even a specific goal to achieve net-zero emissions by a certain date (e.g. end of the century) will appear in the climate deal that is expected to emerge from the Paris COP at the end of this year. But like many such goals, it is both open to interpretation and raises questions as to how it might actually be achieved.
The background to this is that the issue itself implies that this outcome is necessary. The IPCC says in its 5th Assessment Report;
Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Limiting risks across RFCs (Reasons for Concern) would imply a limit for cumulative emissions of CO2. Such a limit would require that global net emissions of CO2 eventually decrease to zero and would constrain annual emissions over the next few decades (Figure SPM.10) (high confidence).
However, the term net-zero needs some sort of definition, although this is currently missing from the UNFCCC text. One online source offers the following;
Net phase out of GHG emissions means that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere decrease to a level equal to or smaller than anthropogenic removals of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
The above effectively means stabilization of the atmospheric concentration of CO2, which also aligns with the ultimate aim of the UNFCCC Convention (stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system). This could still leave room for some level of emissions in that climate models show atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will decline if anthropogenic emissions abruptly stopped. In a 450 – 500 ppm stabilization scenario emissions could remain in the range 7-10 billion tonnes CO2 per annum without driving the atmospheric concentration higher. This is far below current levels (35 billion tonnes per annum from the energy system alone), but it isn’t zero. It can be classified as net-zero though, in that the atmospheric concentration isn’t rising.
However, such an outcome, while stabilizing the atmospheric concentration may not be sufficient to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. In that case an even lower level of emissions may be required, such that atmospheric concentrations do begin to fall and stabilize at a lower concentration.
Another definition of net-zero may simply apply to anthropogenic emissions directly, irrespective of what the concentration in the atmosphere might be doing. In this case, any remaining emissions from anthropogenic sources (and there will be some) would have to be offset with sequestration of carbon dioxide, either via CCS or a permanent forestry solution. In the CCS case, the carbon dioxide would need to come from a bio-source, such as the combustion of biomass in a power station. This is what the IPCC have termed BECCS.
A final step which goes beyond net-zero, is to have an anthropogenic net-negative emissions situation, which is drawing down on the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through some anthropogenic process. This would be necessary to rapidly lower the concentration of carbon dioxide in the case of a significantly elevated level that comes about in the intervening years between now and the point at which the concentration stabilizes. Very large scale deployment of BECCS or an atmospheric capture solution with CCS would be required to achieve this.
Finally, there is the consideration that needs to be given to greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. Methane for example, while a potent greenhouse gas, is relatively short lived (a decade) in the atmosphere so will require some thought. Even in a zero energy emissions system, methane from agriculture and cattle will doubtless remain a problem.
Both of the Shell New Lens scenarios end in a net zero emissions outcome by the end of the century, but this is within the energy system itself and does not encompass the full range of other sources of CO2 emissions and other long lived greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, with extensive deployment of CCS the Mountains scenario heads into negative emissions territory by 2100 and the Oceans scenario soon after that (which means there is potential to offset remaining emissions from very difficult to manage sources). Oceans relies on this approach in a major way to even approach zero in the first instance
Many look to renewable energy as a quick solution to the emissions issue, but the reality is far more complex. While we can imagine a power generation system that is at near zero emissions, made up of nuclear, renewables and fossil fuels with CCS, this is far from a complete solution. Electricity currently represents only 20% of the global final energy mix (see above, click for a larger image: Source IEA).
Solutions will need to be found for a broad range of goods and services that give rise to greenhouse gas emissions, including non-energy sources such as limestone calcination for cement and cattle rearing for dairy and direct consumption. While we can also imagine a significant amount of global light transport migrating to electricity, shipping, heavy transport and aviation will not be so simple. Aviation in particular has no immediate solution other than through a biofuel route although there is some experimentation underway using high intensity solar to provide the energy for synthesis gas manufacture (from carbon dioxide and water), which is then converted to jet fuel via the well-established Fischer–Tropsch process. There are also dozens of industrial processes that rely on furnaces and high temperatures, typically powered by fuels such as natural gas. Metal smelting currently uses coal as the reducing agent, so a carbon based fuel is intrinsic to the process. Solutions will be required for all of these.
Whether we aim for a very low level of emissions, true net-zero anthropogenic emissions or negative emissions is somewhat academic today, given the current level of emissions. All the aforementioned outcomes are going to require a radical re-engineering of the energy system in a relatively short amount of time (< 80 years).