Net zero is a transition step, not the end point, GHD Vice President tells ICON

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

“We all need to start thinking about a net-negative future”, Tej Gidda, Vice President and Future Energy Global Leader at GHD, tells ICON in his opinion piece.




When COVID-19 struck, we all got a glimpse of how quickly nature can rebound, given the chance. As a result, the global collective consciousness shifted towards sustainability and greener lifestyle choices.

We have now reached a unique inflection point, with investment, technology, and government all taking big strides toward a clean-energy transition at the same time.

As we approach COP26, the question on everyone’s lips is, what happens next? Over the past year, the message that we must reach net zero has gone mainstream.

However, many might be surprised to learn that net zero isn’t the end of our reliance on fossil fuels. On the contrary, it just means our economy has offset all emissions through actions such as tree planting, or through technologies that capture carbon emissions before they’re released into the air, or by introducing additional renewables.

So many entities have set a net-zero emissions goal, using different timelines. Entire countries, such as the UK, have promised to emit net-zero greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 2050, as have many companies. This has many implications.

Tej Gidda (Image by GHD)

Firstly, it means that GHG emissions will continue, including those from the use of fossil fuels.

Secondly, it means that several approaches are required to balance out these emissions to reach net zero.

But thirdly, and most importantly, while net emissions will be zero, there’s limited impact on the emissions we’ve already made as a society, and that have already accumulated in the atmosphere. These emissions began with the Industrial Revolution and will remain with us after 2050.

Net-negative is the future of a post-net-zero world

How do we, as a society, begin to reduce the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

The answer is by introducing significantly more renewables, reducing emissions significantly by transitioning away from fossil fuels, and capturing and sequestering CO2 where possible.

The energy transition is a long-term evolution away from fossil fuels that won’t happen overnight. Net zero is, by itself, a transition step, not an end point, on the way to a net-negative future.

As much as we need to concentrate on net zero as part of the energy transition, it’s also essential to begin charting the post-2050 course to a net-negative world. Hydrogen and carbon capture, and extensive use of renewable electricity, liquids, and gaseous fuels such as renewable natural gas, will all be key components of the future that we can introduce now.

Other technologies are under development to accelerate the move – and those that will make the biggest impact don’t even exist yet.

What is clear is that to be sustainable now, we all need to start thinking about a net-negative future.