Carbon Neutrality: why it is important to reach carbon neutrality as soon as possible

What does being “carbon neutral” mean?

A product, service, process or organisation is carbon neutral when it has zero net emissions of greenhouse gases: overall emissions of greenhouse gases are matched by CO2 removal by the green areas of the system considered. In most cases it is the final outcome of a process involving quantification, reduction and compensation of man-made greenhouse gas emissions in a production system or an area.

How many countries in the world are carbon neutral?

There are currently no carbon neutral countries in the world. The Paris Agreement of 2015 set a global target of zero net emissions to be achieved by the second half of the century. An increasing number of countries are seeking to meet their commitments by developing environmental strategies aimed at complete decarbonisation of their economies. Many countries are aiming at carbon neutrality, though none have yet achieved it. Globally, more than 100 countries joined an alliance that aims to achieve zero net emissions by 2050, a very ambitious target that is not always furthered by actions promoted in those states. The countries include: European Union (EU), Japan, Nepal, New Zealand, Panama, South Africa, South Korea, USA, Argentina, Canada, Chile and Colombia. Other states (Brazil, China and Ukraine) have set targets of carbon neutrality by 2060.


Carbon neutrality in Europe and Italy

The EU announced an acceleration of the European Green Deal, declaring that it wants to raise the target of a 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to at least 55% with respect to 1990 levels. This ambitious target is also sustained by major economic allocations, already on the agenda for the coming years: 37% of the Recovery Fund will be to combat climate change and will be determinant in making Europe the first carbon neutral continent by 2050.

Italy, as a EU member state, is bound to reach targets by 2050. At sub-national level, many initiatives that aim for the carbon neutrality of different areas are underway, e.g. the initiatives promoted by the Siena Provincial Administration (already carbon neutral since 2011), the Tuscan Regional Administration, and the Provincial Administrations of Belluno and Parma. Soon many other areas are likely to take measures towards zero net emissions, in the footsteps of the first local administrations.


The example of Siena: the first large area in Europe to achieve carbon neutrality

The first greenhouse gas balance of the Province of Siena (certified ISO 14064-1), for the year 2006, showed that the forests of the province naturally absorbed 72% of the CO2 emissions of the province. This prompted local government to activate the political initiative “Siena Carbon Free 2015” in parallel with the research project. The aim of the initiative was to have 100% of emissions absorbed locally by 2015. This ambitious target was reached in 2011, by virtue of certain policies enacted by the provincial administration on the basis of certified greenhouse gas balances.

Since 2011, the Province of Siena has carbon neutral status, which does not mean that man-made greenhouse gas emissions have been eliminated, but that they are completely compensated by local forest uptake of CO2. As far as we know, the Province of Siena is the first major area in Europe to adopt greenhouse gas inventories verified and validated ISO 14064-1 by an environmental certification agency.


How to become carbon neutral?

To become carbon neutral it is necessary to make reliable greenhouse gas inventories. The inventory shows the greenhouse gas emissions of a given system, from which the critical sectors and human activities with the greatest impact on climate can be identified. These can then be the focus of environmental policy and mitigation to reduce and compensate the emissions.

Reduction of emissions is possible by decreasing consumption of fossil fuels and electricity produced by traditional thermoelectric power stations, by implementation of systems for the integrated management of wastes and by development of non-intensive food production systems. An important aspect of this process is protection of forests, because forests remove CO2 from the atmosphere directly and store the carbon in plant biomass.


What are the advantages of living in a carbon neutral area?

Living in a carbon neutral area involves duties but has many advantages. Every citizen, and all public and private stakeholders, have a duty to reduce consumption and to avoid wasting energy and resources. The dialogue developing between the scientific world, institutions and producers encourages renewable and sustainable production, and sets up a virtuous circle of technological innovation and new jobs. Many public and private organisations are showing increasing interest in the climate question. Certain firms, in tourism and food production for example, can exploit the advantage of operating in a carbon neutral area for marketing purposes and distinction, especially abroad. Brands with both environmental and economic benefits can be devised for promotion on the local product market.


The challenge of carbon neutrality for firms

Measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by firms are based on a three-level strategy: reduce, convert and compensate. First the most effective means are used to avoid or reduce emissions linked to production. Then a transition is made to renewably generated energy. Finally, inevitable emissions of CO2 need to be compensated by joining environmental protection programmes, certified by rigorous international standards.

Aiming for carbon neutrality or zero net emissions has many advantages in the field of marketing and for the production chain, besides improving the health of ecosystems and all life forms (especially humans). Firms that choose to aim for environmental sustainability and that endeavour to include it in their management model will increase in efficiency and in many cases reduce their costs.


Why is it important to become carbon neutral as soon as possible?

The fifth IPCC report on climate change (IPCC AR5, 2014) defined “tipping points” of environmental systems, at which significant rapid irreversible change in the global climate system is triggered. These are thresholds which when crossed can lead to overwhelming irreversible change, including an acceleration in the emission of greenhouse gases due to feedback, with repercussions on the terrestrial climate system. The IPCC report confirms that the risk of reaching climatic tipping points increases with increasing mean global temperature, though the exact levels of global heating that trigger the tipping points of specific natural systems are complex to define. It is therefore absolutely necessary to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by rapid and incisive measures in order to lower mean global temperature.


Agenda 2030 and carbon neutrality

Among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of Agenda 2030, the specific objective linked to carbon neutrality is Goal 13 “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” which is in turn linked to Goal 7 “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. The climate challenge and the transition to renewable energy have the common objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions until neutrality is achieved, i.e. a net balance between emissions and uptake. Even better would be a balance in favour of uptake.

Other goals that can shift the balance towards carbon neutrality are Goal 11 for sustainable cities and communities, Goal 12 for better resource, consumption and waste management, Goal 14 for the health of marine ecosystems and Goal 15 for the protection of forests. Together they concern the lungs of the planet and storage of carbon in marine and terrestrial plant mass.