Published on 21 September 2018


[Inside story] Zero: the new magic number for climate action

“Zero carbon” or “Zero waste” … these are the new keywords for communities and companies in regard to the fight against climate change. If we hope to achieve the Paris Agreement objectives, carbon neutrality is a necessity before the end of the century.  But what’s really behind this magic number “zero”.

Zero, the new magic number adopted by cities and companies to prove their climate commitment

Last week, and for the weeks to come, “zero” will receive a good amount of publicity in the city of San Francisco. New “zero carbon” buildings in “zero waste” towns, while passing by “zero emission” buses: cities and companies alike have all multiplied publicity demonstrating their actions to fight climate change.

These objectives seemed utopic years ago, but in 2015, the Paris Agreement on climate established the principle objective of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2°C.  To achieve this goal, procrastination is not an option, since carbon neutrality must be achieved by 2080. In other words, the world needs to achieve "zero net emissions", which consists of having low carbon emissions, partly offset by negative emission technologies (carbon capture and storage, tree planting, etc.).

Large cities and companies ready to take the leap

To achieve "zero net emissions" in the long run, large cities comprising the C40, a coalition of communities committed to the fight against climate change, have committed themselves to achieving several "zero-target" goals. These goals include: "Zero waste" over the next few decades, with the goal of recycling or composting 70% of organic material by 2030; "zero carbon" for new buildings by 2030, that is to say buildings with high energy performance or those powered by renewable energies; and "zero carbon dioxide emissions" from buses by 2025 as well as from cars operating on "major territory zones" by 2030.

Companies are not being left out. Large corporations, across all sectors, are multiplying their climate commitments using "zero-target" roadmaps.  In San Francisco, Ikea announced a "zero emission" commitment for deliveries made to homes in five major cities around the world by 2020. New demands from communities are expected to speed up the process, particularly for the automotive and construction industries, much like what has been seen with recent demands from investors.

Neutrality: a not-so-easy task

"Zero emissions" remains a challenge, both technically and politically because it means acting on all fronts: a reduction in energy consumption, transferring highly emitting fossil fuels to low carbon energies, converting motor fleets to electric motors or to hydrogen. Not to mention, this means dealing with factories, heating buildings, waste and compensating for emissions via reforestation projects, for example. This requires a profound transformation of corporate business models and urban development strategies.

Another not so simple challenge is implicating small businesses, which are essential in achieving carbon neutrality. This is the focus of a report published by the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (ESEC). In France, for example, 4 million such companies, which constitute the vast majority of the economy, consume only 1% of all energy (Scopes 2 and 3) but are responsible for 12 to 14% of the country’s emissions. The problem is that their knowledge of the subject and their mobilisation remains weak, or at the very least, unequal, and with less leeway room than that found in large groups.

Finally, there is a need to harmonize methodologies and make them more transparent. Much work is underway to advance this subject, such as those initiated by the firm Carbone 4, along with a dozen large French companies (including Engie, L'Oreal, Edf, Orange and BPCE).  Preliminary results from these initiatives must be presented at COP24 in December.

Béatrice Héraud @beatriceheraud 

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