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What is Net Zero and What Does it Mean?


‘Net Zero’ means achieving a balance between the amount of emissions produced and those removed from the atmosphere in order to reduce global warming.

Science has shown that human production of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, determines the overall extent of global warming. Reducing these greenhouse gas emissions is key in preventing catastrophic climate change.

As a result, governments across the world have agreed to try and achieve net zero emissions by 2050 as part of the Paris Agreement, which was signed in 2016. The UK become the first major economy to set a goal of being net zero by 2050.

What Does it Mean?

Becoming net zero refers to balancing negative emissions by removing emissions from the atmosphere to achieve carbon neutrality.

This can be understood by using the metaphor of a sink being filled up with water. You can either turn off the taps (emissions reduction) or remove the plug and drain the water (removing emissions from the atmosphere) to prevent the sink from overflowing. Net zero is the equivalent of making sure the amount of water coming from the tap is equal to that being drained through the plughole.

Net zero allows for some emissions to be above zero so long as they are balanced out elsewhere to achieve net zero carbon global emissions. Rather than attempting to reduce the amount of carbon emissions to zero, the net zero emissions target allows some areas to operate with positive rather than negative emissions. This allows for sectors where it would be difficult to reach net zero emissions, such as aviation, to operate while being offset by other sectors where it is easier to reduce emissions or find alternatives for energy consumption.

What is Net Zero

What is the Difference Between Zero and Net Zero?

Industry uses the terms ‘Net Zero’ and ‘Zero Energy’ but they are not interchangeable as there is a difference between the two approaches.

This means offsetting the energy used on-site through other means. So, for example, if a project consumes 250,000 kBTU of electricity and 250,000 kBTU of natural gas it would need to produce 500,000 kBTU of on-site renewable energy in order to achieve net zero.

By contrast, the Department of Energy defines zero energy as having to produce as much renewable energy on site as it consumes in source energy. This doesn’t just include the energy that is consumed, but also the energy required to deliver the electricity or natural gas. This includes factors such as transmission loss and energy generation efficiency and breaks down each energy sources separately. In this instance one unit of electricity does not equal one unit of natural gas as they have differences in sourcing.

Net zero is less complex and easier to achieve than zero energy, since it doesn’t account for differences in fossil fuels, or the energy expended in sourcing and delivery. This also allows some industries to operate with higher fuel consumption so long as these are negated by other industries.


TWI has been working for years with academia and industry as well as supporting government initiatives that directly impact the move towards net zero. Our work bridges industry sectors and TWI leads the way in areas such as electrification and battery technology, as well as spearheading research and development in alignment with a number of universities.

TWI Innovation Network (TWIIN)

The TWI Innovation Network (TWIIN) creates partnerships to enable engineering advances in specialist areas across a variety of industry sectors to meet commercial needs and train the next generation of industry experts. This includes the creation of Innovation Centres whose work has a direct impact on the move towards net zero.

TWI has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Digital Catapult to establish a new Industrial Net Zero Innovation Centre (INZIC) at our headquarters near Cambridge. The centre will promote improved sustainability and efficiency to achieve net zero.

Click here to find out more

How do you get Net Zero?

To achieve this in the UK, for example, emissions would have to be reduced by 100% of the 1990 levels. This can be done in a variety of ways, including actions taken by individuals as well as industry. The target applies to all industry sectors from aerospace to power generation, and can be broadly be broken down into four main methods:

  1. Removal of carbon from the atmosphere
  2. Improving energy efficiency in buildings
  3. Electrification of transport
  4. Decarbonisation of power

The difference between these approaches is that the first aims to reduce the existing amount of greenhouse gas through methods such as air capture or reforestation, while the other three aim to reduce or offset the amount of greenhouse gases that are produced.

1. Removal of Carbon from the Atmosphere

Net zero can only be achieved by removing carbon from the atmosphere as well as reducing the amount that is produced. Planting trees that absorb and store carbon is one easy method to achieve this, but other methods include carbon capture and storage (CCS), which takes carbon emissions from the air and stores them in the ground.

2. Improving Energy Efficiency in Buildings

Improving the energy efficiency of buildings will also have a large impact on reaching net zero. In the UK, this primarily means removing carbon from heating, but other nations will investigate matters such as air conditioning, depending on climate. Alternative energy sources can help with these problems as can factors such as improved insulation and energy efficiency in buildings.

3. Electrification of Transport

Transport is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and these continue to rise. Replacing conventional petrol and diesel vehicles with electric vehicles (EV) is a clear example of how transport can be made environmentally friendly. Emissions from transport can also be reduced through means such as light-weighting, which means the use of lighter components in order to reduce fuel consumption.

4. Decarbonisation of Power

The decarbonisation of power requires the greater adoption of renewable and clean energy sources. For the UK, this primarily involves the use of wind power. Current figures show that the UK has 8GW of offshore wind capacity, but it is estimated that this will need to be increased by 5-10GW per year for the next 30 years to meet the targets by 2050.

What Countries have Committed?

As of June 2020, twenty countries and regions have adopted net zero targets. These include Austria, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Denmark, the European Union, Fiji, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, the Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

There are some notable absences from this list, including The United States, Australia, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. However, smaller economies in these nations have committed to the goal of net zero, such as California, New York, and Hawaii in the USA and New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland in Australia.

The nations committed equals 17% of global GDP and even this does not mean it will be achieved. However, it is hoped that more nations will be influenced to commit. They may be influenced by leadership, technology and innovation as well as through the application of pressure such as a Carbon Border Tax Adjustment, whereby taxes are levied on imports from countries with no carbon price.

TWI Industry Projects

TWI’s work with our Industrial Members frequently ties in with the push towards net zero as our experts are called upon to offer support across industry sectors.

We have been supporting the transport and construction industries in the move towards electrification as a greener alternative to combustion engines. This includes a great deal of work developing battery solutions for electric vehicles.

Our work in electrification is complemented by the research and development undertaken in the field of materials and lightweighting for vehicle manufacturers. Lighter vehicles require less energy to power, and our aluminium expertise has been widely exploited by industry. Lightweighting is also an integral benefit from our work with the Surflow Project, which allows for the replacement of wiring systems with a composite data highway for data transmission. Meanwhile, in the marine sector, the Fibreship Project saw TWI collaborate on the development of composites for shipbuilding.

The power sector is another area where TWI has been influential in promoting work that should offer environmental benefits. This work ranges from developing geothermal energy solutions to addressing the challenges of offshore wind and the promotion of clean and efficient nuclear energy through small modular reactors (SMR).

Government Initiatives

The UK government has highlighted a number of industrial priorities based upon a wider UK Industrial Strategy. These trending topics don’t just seek to advance UK industry in key areas, but also include initiatives that directly impact on net zero, such as electrification.

Aside from wider government initiatives, TWI has also shown support on a more local level, including a recently launched funded innovation development scheme for SMEs in the Tees Valley, with the aim of bringing innovative products to market.

Related Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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