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COP26: Here's what the climate buzzwords 'net zero' and 'carbon neutral' actually mean

File picture: Tim Wimborne/Reuters

File picture: Tim Wimborne/Reuters

Published Nov 15, 2021


The world will be watching closely as Heads of State return home from COP26 to make good on promises of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and achieving carbon neutrality before we reach the point of no return.

If you have been following the speeches and promises that flew out the conference halls of the Scottish Event Campus, you would have heard a cacophony of climate buzzwords such as “net zero” and “carbon neutral” but what exactly do these mean?

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Net Zero and Carbon Neutral

According to Net Zero Climate, “net zero refers to a state in which the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by removal of these gasses out of the atmosphere.”

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For example, a company such as a steel mill emits carbon through the smelting process, something that requires burning vast amounts of coal and gas. In order to balance out their carbon emissions, the company commits to funding the planting of a few million trees in a protected area.

The trees would absorb roughly the same amount of carbon that the steel mill emits. This would, in theory, allow the steel mill to achieve net zero emissions or carbon neutrality.

The term net zero is important because this is the state at which global warming stops. The Paris Agreement underlines the need for net zero, requiring states to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”.

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The National Business Initiative launched the Power Sector Decarbonisation Report on 11 August 2021.

The report delved into the means which South Africa could use to decarbonise its economy by 2050. It was published just days after the release of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report raised the alarm over the “irreversible” impacts of climate change.

The report found that if South Africa fully exploited its renewable resources such as wind, solar and hydro, the country could fully decarbonise its power sector, while also stimulating economic growth and job creation.

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“Transitioning South Africa’s power system to net-zero would require the deployment of approximately 150-gigawatt hours of wind and solar capacity by 2050. This is almost four times the total capacity of South Africa’s coal power plants today.

“This would require an investment of around R3 trillion within the next 30 years, with significant expansion and upgrade to the transmission and distribution infrastructure needed,” said the report.

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