Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Megan Hall: If you follow the news about climate change, you’ve probably heard the phrase “net zero.” But what does “net zero” really mean? 

Megan Hall: Here to help me answer that question is Stephen Porder, our founder and the Provost of sustainability at Brown University. Hey, Stephen!

Stephen Porder: Hey, Megan. Good to be back.

Megan Hall: So Stephen, when a business says it’s becoming “net zero” what does that mean? 

Stephen Porder: In theory, it means the business is canceling out any greenhouse gases it emits by reducing the same amount of emissions somewhere else. It’s also called carbon neutral.

Megan Hall: Interesting. I actually thought that net-zero just meant you found a way to STOP creating greenhouse gas emissions altogether. 

Stephen Porder: Well, that would be even better! And we’d just call that zero. In net-zero, it’s more of an equation where the gases you create minus the gases you keep out of the air equals zero. 

Megan Hall: So, how does this work?

Stephen Porder: Well let’s say you drive your car and it emits some carbon dioxide or CO2. You can’t grab those emissions back. But you can plant a tree, and if the tree lives long enough, it will pull some CO2 out of the air. 

Megan Hall: And if the tree pulls out as much CO2 as your car creates, you’re net-zero?

Stephen Porder: Right. That’s called a carbon offset.

Megan Hall: What if the tree dies?

Stephen Porder: That’s one problem with offsets, it’s hard to be sure they’ll work. 

Megan Hall: Do any of them work?

Stephen Porder: Yes, sort of. Let’s say instead of planting a tree for your car, you put enough solar panels on your house to cut the same amount of emissions from a power plant.

Megan Hall:  That would make you truly net-zero???

Stephen Porder: Yes. But there’s another problem. In the long run, there aren’t enough real offsets to make up for all our emissions.

Megan Hall: So, what’s the point? Is net-zero just BS?

Stephen Porder: It doesn’t have to be. Let’s say a business wants to be net-zero. The BS way is to change nothing, buy cheap useless offsets that don’t work, and call it a day. 

Megan Hall: What’s a better approach?

Stephen Porder: A company that’s really serious about tackling climate change will switch from gas to electric cars,  it’ll invest in renewable energy, and it will stop using fossil fuels to heat its buildings.  

Megan Hall: And only buy offsets for the emissions it truly can’t avoid?

Stephen Porder: Yeah, and make a plan to eliminate even those as fast as possible. 

Megan Hall: Ok. So, how are you feeling in general about this whole push to become net-zero? 

Stephen:  So, net-zero is totally a necessary step. There are a lot of things we can’t eliminate emissions from right away. But, at the end of the day, the atmosphere doesn’t respond to what we say our emissions are. It responds to what they actually are. And the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change is to get those emissions down to zero.

Megan Hall: Great, thanks for clearing this up for me, Stephen!

Stephen Porder: Happy to help!

Megan Hall: That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solution’s Initiative, and The Public’s Radio.