What is a Net-Zero Emissions Target?  

What does it mean? 

When people talk about ‘net-zero emissions’, they are referring to the point in time when we achieve a balance between greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced and GHG emissions removed from the atmosphere.  

By calculating the amount of GHG emissions we release every year and comparing that number to the amount of GHG emissions we prevent or offset every year, we can reach net-zero.  

We need to reach net-zero to prevent some of the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change. The good news is, we already have all the tools and the technology we need to make that happen – we just need to move faster. 

So how are these emissions calculated? 

Greenhouse gases are the emissions that climate scientists focus on because they cause the planet to warm up. There are two main greenhouse gases causing the most damage – carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Carbon dioxide accounts for about three-quarters of all global emissions, so that’s why you hear about ‘carbon emissions’ the most. Methane and other gases in much smaller amounts make up the final quarter.  

In 2021, we emitted 36.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide globally.  

To reach net-zero, we will need to either offset those emissions or prevent part of it from happening in the first place – all 36.3 billion tonnes of it. To capture just one tonne of CO2 emissions, we’d need 50 trees to grow for one year. Now multiply that example by 36.3 billion and you can see why it’s so important to start working toward net-zero now

What are the challenges for WA? 

WA set a net-zero by 2050 target back in 2017. This is significantly behind most other states, which are striving for net-zero by 2030 – except Tasmania, which hit net-zero in 2015! Only WA and the Northern Territory are lagging.  

The reason behind this lag is pretty clear when you consider that WA is the only state to have increased its emissions since 2005 – by as much as 21%.  

Why is it important to take action now? 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 report shows the severe impacts of global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. From the IPCC:  

“Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.”  

That 1.5°C number is a really important one, and you’ll hear it a lot when it comes to climate. The globe is already 1°C warmer, and from that seemingly insignificant climb we’ve already experienced a sharp increase in natural disasters and extreme weather events. The warmer the planet gets, the worse these circumstances become. Right now, the global goal is to keep warming below 1.5°C to have the best chance at mitigating a catastrophic climate future. This goal is a formal one set by world governments under the United Nations Paris Agreement. You can learn all about what the world will look like under a 1.5°C, 2°C and 3°C degree warming scenario using this interactive tool from Carbon Brief.  

The good news is that achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 (but ideally much sooner) is likely to reduce global warming impacts, including severe weather events, bushfires and food shortages. 

What action is being taken – and what needs to be done? 
For starters, WA needs to set a net-zero target sooner than 2050. At a state level, the WA Government has committed to some climate change adaptation measures and is supporting economic sectors to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 through the Western Australian Climate Change Policy. Local Area Governments are also coming on board with many including the City of Fremantle, City of Bayswater and City of Albany committing to reducing emissions at the local level.  

However, there is absolutely not enough being done in WA’s gas and coal sectors to reduce emissions and the government has not committed to a moratorium on all new gas and coal projects. The Scarborough to Pluto LNG development is a key example – it’s set to produce 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon emissions for the next quarter of a century, equivalent to nearly 15 coal-fired power stations.

Additionally in WA, there tends to be an over-reliance on offsetting emissions to solve the problem. This is a common tactic but has been proven to be quite ineffective and should be a last resort. We recommend the WA Government implement a 2030 net-zero target as soon as possible.  

The Clean State Jobs Plan is a more in-depth explainer on all the myriad ways we can reach net-zero in WA – check it out! 


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