Climate MattersDecember 2, 2020

What is Net Zero?

What is Net Zero?
Net Zero: Future - What is Net Zero?
Net Zero: Future
Net Zero: Budget - What is Net Zero?
Net Zero: Budget


  • The term “net zero” means that any greenhouse gas emissions released are balanced by an equal amount being taken out of the atmosphere. 

  • The Paris Climate Agreement created goals to limit the increase in global temperatures to well below 2.0°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, and to aim to curb the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F). To do this, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut in half by 2030, and reach “net zero” by mid-century for the 1.5°C degree target. 

  • Core areas of the U.S. economy—transportation, electricity, industry, agriculture, and commercial and residential buildings—need to undergo major transformation in order to get to net zero. 

  • Most of the pathways to keeping global temperature increases below 2°C—and every pathway to stopping at 1.5°C—incorporates absorbing carbon emissions from the atmosphere through carbon capture and storage, or sequestration. 

Read Climate Matters’ new solutions brief on getting to net zero.


The planet needs to go on a carbon diet. Our current catastrophes—devastating wildfires, stronger hurricanes, and rising seas—are consistent with the warnings scientists made in the 1980s and 1990s. Past burning of fossil fuels, including oil, coal, and natural gas, has released greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and caused the earth to warm by 2° Fahrenheit (a bit more than 1° Celsius) since the pre-industrial era (1880-1900). 

In 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement set goals for countries to try and limit the increase in global warming to well below 2.0°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels to avoid worsening impacts of climate change, and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to below 1.5°C (2.7°F). According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in order to reach these targets, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut in half by 2030, and reach “net zero” by mid-century for the 1.5°C degree target. This not only requires drastically cutting our greenhouse gas emissions fast, but removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The term “net zero” simply means that any greenhouse gas emissions released are balanced by an equal amount being taken out of the atmosphere. 

Scientists, engineers, and other researchers are exploring pathways and models to figure out what needs to happen over the next few decades to get the U.S. to net zero. The Net-Zero America Project (NZAP), being released in December 2020, models several technology pathways to reach net-zero GHG emissions by mid-century. Another initiative, the Zero Carbon Action Plan (ZCAP), released in October 2020, looks at decarbonizing six key economic sectors. And there are other net-zero plans and carbon management solutions, including reports from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

While their modeling and projections may incorporate different inputs and show different outcomes, all these projects highlight the same core areas of our economy that need to undergo major transformation in order to get to net zero: 

  • Creating carbon-free electricity

  • Electrifying transportation

  • Adopting energy efficiency measures and electrifying our buildings

  • Decarbonizing industry and manufacturing

  • Transforming our farming and food habits

Most pathways to keeping global temperatures in check—and every pathway to stopping at 1.5 degrees—incorporates absorbing carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is the only greenhouse gas that can be taken out of the atmosphere and stored; doing it at a scale large enough to make a difference is a challenge.

In the next few months, Climate Matters will release a series of climate solutions issue briefs tackling these topics. We’ll explain the technologies and policies that support net-zero goals, look at where we are and where we need to go in our states and cities, and provide you with resources and experts to help you with your reporting.

Wind Energy Potential

Wind Energy Potential

Solar Energy Potential

Solar Energy Potential

Soil Solutions

Soil Solutions

U.S. Emissions

U.S. Emissions


Where are net-zero commitments being made? 
In the U.S., a growing number of state governments have committed to GHG reduction targets through legislation or by executive order. Twenty-three states plus the District of Columbia have adopted GHG reduction targets to address climate change. Twelve states now have net-zero mandates by 2050. As of July 2020, 19 countries and the European Union had adopted net-zero targets. The N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University maintains DSIRE, a comprehensive database on state and local incentives and policies for renewable energy and energy efficiency. And the National Conference of State Legislatures describes which states have set renewable portfolio standards. 

How much energy does my state produce from renewable energy sources like solar or wind?
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) produces monthly reports of national and state energy statistics, and also has an interactive state energy portal that provides maps, charts, and state dashboards showing how much of your state’s electricity is supplied by renewable, nuclear, or fossil fuel sources. And you can use Climate Central’s WeatherPower tool to find your local wind and solar electricity generation and forecast, as well as downloadable and customizable graphics.

Are there more electric vehicles on the road near you?
Electric vehicles (EVs) can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants, but potentially act as battery storage with vehicle-to-grid systems. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center has statistics on EV registrations, charging locations, incentive programs, and other data by state. And you can check here to compare conventional, hybrid, and electric vehicle emissions by state, based on local sources of electricity.


The SciLine service, 500 Women Scientists, or the press offices of local universities may be able to connect you with local scientists who have expertise on net-zero targets and renewable energy in your area. The American Association of State Climatologists is a professional scientific organization composed of all 50 state climatologists. You can also contact experts at your Regional Climate Center, a program under NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI).  The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has an interactive map that allows you to find local energy companies in your state, and downloadable fact sheets for each state on solar production and state incentives. Windpower Engineering & Development is a quarterly trade publication that has a searchable database of wind energy projects and their manufacturers around the country.


  • Eric Larson, Ph.D. Senior Scientist with Climate Central, Senior Research Faculty Member with the Energy Systems Analysis Group at Princeton University's Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

  • Chuck Kutscher, Ph.D., P.E. Fellow and Senior Research Associate, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, University of Colorado-Boulder (Former Director, NREL Buildings and Thermal Sciences Center, retired).

  • Steve Nadel, Executive Director, American Council for Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE)
    Media contact:, 202-658-8129.

  • Keith Paustian, Ph.D.  University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Senior Research Scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University Keith.

  • Steven Pacala, Ph.D.  Frederick D. Petrie Frederick D. Petrie Professor, Climate change and systems ecology, Princeton University,

  • Vanessa Tutos, EDP Renewables North America LLC, Director, Government Affairs.