“There is no planet B!”: Why the idea of net-zero carbon emissions no longer seems impossible.

Image credit: Li-An Lim via Unsplash.

Climate change, pollution, emissions: 4 words that the world seems to know but doesn’t seem to fully understand. For many years scientist have argued about climate change, and whether it is just a hoax created by fear-mongering governments and incompetent scientists; after all, how could a few degrees here or there possibly change the face of the Earth? However the reality is simple: if we do not change our way of living now, then the damage to the planet will be irreversible, forcing future generations into an inevitable cycle of continuous decline. Little by little, transnational corporations have begun to implement little changes. For example, McDonald’s switched to biodiesel fuel (recycled cooking oil from their food) to power their lorries back in 2007. Furthermore, governments around the world have begun to take initiative: in the UK the plastic bag tax was introduced, first in Wales in 2011, then Northern Ireland in 2013, Scotland in 2014 and then, finally,  England in 2015.

The idea of Earth achieving “net-zero carbon emissions'' has been recently thrust into the public eye after it was announced on the 20th April 2021 that a new law had been introduced to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035, in line for the global target of having zero carbon emissions by 2050. When it came to matters involving climate change, British PM, Boris Johnson, commented that,

“We want to continue to raise the bar on tackling climate change, and that’s why we’re setting the most ambitious target to cut emissions in the world”.

This statement reflects the fact that politicians and governments do see the threat of a changing climate as very real, which is always very good news -  however we must reflect on the fact that not every politician will stick to their word. For example, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, was championing the expansion of Heathrow airport at exactly the same time as agreeing that there’s a climate crisis.

Although it seems quite an ambitious target, to what degree is this goal actually achievable? The term ‘net-zero’ was coined as a way to describe a lifestyle where there is no greenhouse gases being emitted ; this can be achieved by cutting off greenhouse gas emitters and then by offsetting any remaining emissions by planting trees, investing in renewable energy sources and replacing fossil fuels with more sustainable products such as biodiesel fuel. The proposal of trying to achieve a net-zero society is not exactly a new one, in fact it goes back nearly a decade to the run up to the 2015 Paris agreement debate. According to Megan Darby, editor of ‘Climate Home News’, the plan first started to take shape around the kitchen table at Glen House, a country estate in the Scottish Highlands:

“There had been discussions about what should be the long-term goal of the UN regime for a long time, going right back to the early days. We had umpteen takes,” says Yamin, a veteran of the process.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 was a decision agreed upon by almost all of the countries in the world to keep the global temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial era levels ; if we continue to use greenhouse gases at the rate we are now then it is inevitable that we will exceed 1.5°C, which will be detrimental to the planet. The unanimous goal to try and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 is not an impossible one, and the pandemic did well to revitalise belief in this.

There are two main ways that the world can move towards achieving net-zero emissions. The first and most important change is the use of renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels such as coal. Economies will have to remove the use of gas and oil-powered stations and instead replace them with wind and solar farms. By doing this it would drastically reduce the amount of pollutants in the atmosphere and also ensure that the air is also healthier - not to mention that it is also financially cheaper to use renewable energy sources.

Likewise, a switch to electric transportation will be crucial in ensuring that we can achieve the net-zero target by 2050. The UK in particular is notorious for having a large percentage of people driving petrol and diesel powered vehicles (82.4% to be precise). These are massive contributors to air pollution, particularly in major cities such as London, Birmingham and Leeds. It has been reported that by 2027 electric vehicles will be made cheaper than petrol cars to produce than models with petrol and diesel engines. This follows vehicle manufacturer decisions to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035. Not only this, but PM Boris Johnson also announced that as a part of his ‘Ten point plan for a green industrial revolution’ we will end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, with all new cars and vans being fully zero emission from 2035. As aforementioned, this will significantly aid the reduction of emissions, as well as stop the circulation of harmful pollutants in the atmosphere.

Similarly, singular sections of society must also look at what they can personally do to help the effort. Recent research has now proved that household aerosols,such as air fresheners, deodorants and furniture polish have overtaken cars as a source of smog polluting chemicals in the UK. Scientists are now urging people to swap out their canned items for things such as roll on deodorant and hair gel - small changes such as these can have a massive impact on the environment. Professor Alastair Lewis, a director for the National Centre for Atmospheric Science in Leeds said:

“Virtually all aerosol-based consumer products can be delivered in non-aerosol form”
“Making small changes in what we buy could have a major impact on both outdoor and indoor air quality, and have relatively little impact on our lives”

Aerosols have a volatile organic compound, which is essentially a high vapour pressure at room temperature. Although they are less damaging than the chlorofluorocarbons that they replaced in the1980’s, they are still extremely damaging and account for 93% of aerosol cans.

There are other ways to reduce carbon emissions as an individual as well, with the biggest of these being reducing the amount of meat and dairy that we consume. One cow can produce up to 200kg of methane a year, which is done so through burping and farting. The average human will eat eleven cows in their lifetime, which amounts to an awful lot of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. On top of this, little changes such as leaving the car at home, cutting down on fast food and turning  the heater and TV off when not in use, can help the world to universally reach the prime goal of zero emissions.

It is imperative that attitudes by the public change - so far we are only on tack for a measly decrease of half a percent. This goal is not an impossible one, in fact each day more electric vehicles are rolled out and there are less petrol and diesel vehicles on the roads.We are not just saving this world for ourselves, but for future generations who haven’t yet had a chance to experience the world; and might never not if we do not make the changes needed now.