What is zero carbon?

Centre for nature and green living

What is zero carbon?

CO2 emissions rise and fall graph on a world map underlay
CO2 emissions need to fall even more rapidly than they have risen over the last century in order to achieve net zero and keep our planet as habitable as we know it

I hate to admit that when I first heard the term, I was confused. Carbon is the main building block of life so how could you go to zero? However, I quickly learned that it’s a shorthand for net zero carbon emissions. That may sound straightforward enough but how do you get to zero when just about everything we do generates some emissions?

As with most things, it’s all about balance and who’s holding the scales. The UN Paris Agreement asks that all countries reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. A balance needs to be reached between their actual emissions, generated primarily through the use of fossil fuels, and so called negative emissions. This is where carbon either gets literally sucked out of the atmosphere with machines or is absorbed by plants. Of course, it’s only thanks to plants that we have a breathable atmosphere and they are great allies in our attempts to balance carbon emissions. Large scale tree planting and other habitat restoration where that’s not appropriate certainly form a big part of the answer to the increasingly urgent climate emergency.

Zero Carbon Britain report coverHowever, climate scientist Kevin Anderson explains the dangers of relying on carbon removal instead of reducing it in the first place. A true zero carbon target thoroughly reviews all activities in order to eliminate the resulting emissions and takes account of the full planetary picture. The Centre for Alternative Technology have created a roadmap for Zero Carbon Britain. This demonstrates that we already have the tools and technology needed to efficiently power the UK with 100% renewable energy, to feed ourselves sustainably and play our part in leaving a safe and habitable climate for our children and future generations.”

What does it mean for individuals and communities? Within the One Planet Living principles, which St Nicks has adopted and advocates, zero carbon focuses on energy in buildings. The aim is to reduce the energy demand to power, heat or cool homes, and provide what is required from renewable sources. This can be achieved through good design of new buildings to a high energy efficiency standard, such as Passivhaus, and by retrofitting existing homes to achieve similar. It will not be achieved by simply waiting for the national grid to further green up although that is good news in itself.

Eco-retrofitted Victorian house

Eco-retrofitted Victorian house visited during 2019 York Open Eco Homes

There are multiple benefits to striving for an energy efficient, well-insulated, zero carbon home. Alongside reduced carbon emissions you can also improve your comfort and wellbeing, as well as lower your energy bills. We have been showcasing both new and retrofitted local homes that do all that through our York Open Eco Homes project.

We’ll look at how to start your zero carbon journey in future blogs.


Post written by Outreach Officer Ivana Jakubkova

23 July 2020 | Categories: Back to Basics, One Planet Living | Tags: climate emergency, energy efficiency, one planet living, retrofitting, UN Paris Agreement, wellbeing, zero carbon, Zero Carbon Britain