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Embracing Net Zero

Taking crucial steps toward a sustainable future

Published: Thursday, July 13, 2023 - 11:02

Net zero is our strongest tool yet against the climate crisis. The transition to net-zero emissions presents a compelling solution that offers not only environmental benefits but also economic, social, and health advantages. Failing to act swiftly and decisively risks catastrophic climate change, including extreme weather events, sea-level rise, biodiversity loss, and disruptions to food and water supplies.

Let’s delve into the key reasons why embracing net zero is vital for our collective well-being:
• Tackling the climate crisis
• Protecting human health
• Driving innovation and economic growth
• Enhancing energy security
• Preserving ecosystems and biodiversity

What is net zero?

Although there may be variations in definitions of net zero, the globally agreed net-zero definition is contained in the ISO Net Zero Guidelines (IWA 42:2022). It defines net zero as “a condition in which human-caused residual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are balanced by human-led removals over a specified period and within specified boundaries.” Achieving this balance is a complex process involving emission reductions, offsets, and innovative technologies.

The shift to a net-zero emissions world can be achieved by reducing emissions at their source and canceling out residual emissions through carbon offsets. Carbon reduction is the process of directly cutting emissions through efficiencies, while carbon offset involves investing in “carbon sinks”—i.e., forests and oceans—that absorb CO2 to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere.

Carbon neutral vs. net zero: What’s in it for business?

Is net zero the same as carbon neutral? Businesses often speak about becoming “carbon neutral.” It means they’re taking steps to remove an amount of CO2 equivalent to what is emitted through activities across their supply chains. This operation is called offsetting and allows organizations to continue doing business with a good conscience.

Net zero goes beyond carbon neutrality, encompassing all GHGs, including methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and other hydrofluorocarbons, which tend to trap more heat than carbon dioxide. It consists of ambitious emission reductions, systemic changes across sectors, and active removal of emissions. By adopting a net-zero mindset, we can accelerate the transition to a sustainable future, ensure climate resilience, and create opportunities for innovation, green jobs, and economic prosperity.

Why do we need net zero?

The emissions released by human action are taking their toll on our planet and propelling us further toward an irreversible climate crisis. Transformative net-zero goals, especially when led by governments worldwide, can help limit temperature rise to 1.5°C by 2050.

Achieving net-zero carbon emissions isn’t just an environmental imperative; it also presents significant opportunities for organizations of all sizes. These include cost savings from energy efficiency, improved brand reputation, and alignment with increasing consumer and investor demand for sustainable practices.

How businesses benefit from net zero

Many businesses today are embracing net-zero goals, striving for net-zero carbon emissions in their operations. This involves direct emission reductions through energy efficiency and renewable energy use, and indirect reductions through carbon offset projects. By gaining a full understanding of the net-zero meaning and applying it to their operations, businesses can play a crucial role in combatting climate change—and it’s also good for their bottom lines.

Net-zero buildings are one example of how businesses can move toward these goals. Leading enterprises are cutting emissions throughout the life cycle of the buildings they own and operate. This can be done by retrofitting existing structures and ensuring new structures generate low emissions. These buildings are designed to generate as much energy as they consume over the course of a year, thus achieving net-zero energy consumption and, in many cases, net-zero carbon emissions.

In the digital realm, the concept of net-zero internet is also emerging. This refers to the concept of achieving carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions in the operation and use of internet and digital technologies. It aims to mitigate the environmental impact associated with rapidly growing digital infrastructure, data centers, telecommunications networks, and the overall energy consumption of the internet.

ISO net-zero guidelines

ISO launched guiding principles for achieving net zero at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. These principles provide a road map for organizations, including businesses, on their journey to net-zero carbon emissions. The Net Zero Guidelines provide common definitions, high-level principles, and actionable guidance toward achieving net zero by 2050. They also help entities make credible claims and develop consistent reports on emissions, reductions, and removals.

Key elements include:
• Emission reductions—Reducing emissions at the source is the most effective way to achieve net zero. This can be done by improving energy efficiency, switching to renewable energy sources, and innovating processes to reduce waste.
• Carbon offsets—For emissions that can’t be eliminated, carbon offsets are a viable solution. These involve investing in projects that remove or reduce GHGs in the atmosphere.
•Transparency and accountability—Regular monitoring and reporting of GHG emissions is crucial for transparency and accountability. This also helps businesses identify areas for improvement and track progress toward their net-zero goals.
• Stakeholder engagement—Engaging stakeholders, such as employees, customers, investors, and the wider community, is key to successfully implementing net-zero strategies. This fosters a culture of sustainability and drives collective action toward emission reductions.
• Equity and justice—The Net Zero Guidelines align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Climate action takes into account the burdens and benefits of climate change and ensures that responses, including responsibility for costs, are equitably shared, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable.

Why ISO standards for climate change?

The Net Zero Guidelines help bring clarity but also point to other good standards out there. As an example, the guidelines usefully complement the ISO 14000 suite of environmental standards. Moreover, they serve as a reference for organizations to set net-zero goals by helping to align the array of different efforts that are out there. The Net Zero Guidelines also enable a more consistent approach for developing future initiatives and deliverables, including standards:
ISO 14090:2019, adaptation to climate change
ISO 14064-1:2018, greenhouse gases
ISO/DIS 14068, greenhouse gas management, climate change management, and related activities

For the climate cause

The case for moving to net zero is undeniable. It presents an unparalleled opportunity to safeguard our planet, protect human health, drive economic prosperity, and secure a sustainable future for generations to come. We must collectively commit to this imperative, taking bold and decisive action to transition to a net-zero economy.

By embracing ISO’s Net Zero Guidelines, we not only fulfill our moral obligation but also set the stage for a cleaner, healthier, and more resilient world. 


About The Author

ISO’s picture


The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is the world’s largest developer and publisher of international standards. ISO is a network of the national standards institutes of 162 countries, one member per country, with a Central Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, that coordinates the system. ISO is a nongovernmental organization that forms a bridge between the public and private sectors. ISO enables a consensus to be reached on solutions that meet both the requirements of business and the broader needs of society. View the ISO Standards list.


ISO 50001 is constructive, Net Zero is not

Net Zero, decarbonization, and so on have so far resulted in higher costs for customers, lower wages for employees, and lower profits for investors as shown by, as but two examples, Silicon Valley Bank and Bed, Bath & Beyond. https://bedbathandbeyond.gcs-web.com/news-releases/news-release-details/bed-bath-beyond-launches-esg-strategy-and-makes-bold-commitments "Bed Bath & Beyond is rapidly scaling its ESG strategy to be Net Zero by the year 2040."  

The reason, as I see it, is that these goals and metrics divert focus, attention, and resources away from service to relevant interested parties (customers, workers, investors, and suppliers) to efforts to emulate King Canute's futile command that the tide not come in. That is, there was a time in our geologic history when there were no polar ice caps and a good part of North America was covered by the Western Interior Seaway, and another when Canada and what is now New  England were covered by the Laurentide Ice Sheet. We also had the Medieval Warm Period during which Vikings discovered what they named Greenland which, while it might have been green at the time, is covered almost entirely by ice and snow today. Human carbon emission was limited, at the time, solely to fires for heat, cooking, and trades like blacksmithing. While carbon dioxide is indeed a greenhouse gas, its overall contribution to what Nature decides to do on its own is open to serious question and resources are probably far better used to adapt to climate change (as humans have done throughout history) than to try to avert it. 

The behavior of attendees at the annual UN Climate Conferences (UNCOP), namely use of private planes which emit far more carbon dioxide per passenger than commercial airlines, shows meanwhile that they do not believe this is an urgent problem regardless of anything they say otherwise. I think it is far fairer to depict it as "important but not urgent" in the Eisenhower priority matrix. "Important" means deserving of indirect attention via, for example, ISO 50001:2018 which reduces supply chain costs through avoidance of energy waste. "Not urgent" means that use of resources to measure carbon footprints or, even worse, purchase carbon offsets or non-competitive renewable energy, is a waste of stakeholder resources. As renewable energy becomes more competitive, and wind, sun, and tides are indeed free, economic assessments can change accordingly.

Having said this, avoidance of energy waste, regardless of its source, delivers lower prices, higher wages, and higher profits simultaneously and this is what diligent application of ISO 50001:2018 will do. Avoided energy waste is almost certainly fungible, via the power grid, with fossil fuel energy so this has the desirable side effect of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Henry Ford pointed out long ago that any waste of material or energy--and there were few if any laws relating to the disposal of wasted material--was wasted money so he tried to avoid making the wastes in the first place, or found ways to repurpose and sell it (e.g. waste wood as Kingsford Charcoal). My position is that ISO 14001:2015 users should pay attention to everything that is thrown away, as opposed to just environmental aspects, to get more value from it. These two standards, if used as valuable servants to improve performance, can deliver substantial bottom line results and I encourage their use.

Mostly Agree

Yes, avoidance of energy waste, and all wastes, is a good thing.  But one does not need ISO standards to do so.  

As for the climate conference attendees and their private planes and general "high-off-the-hog" lifestyles in general, are beyond contemptible, in my opinion.  


"Failing to act swiftly and decisively risks catastrophic climate change, including extreme weather events, sea-level rise, biodiversity loss, and disruptions to food and water supplies."

Okay, I'll say it.  This is nonsense.  

ISO Standard for Net Zero

I agree, this is nonsense.