The ISO Net Zero Guidelines: 7 Questions Answered

The UK led the way in making its 2050 net zero targets legally binding in June 2019. While this was a step in the right direction for reversing climate change, the government has put British businesses under pressure to meet net zero by 2050.

Last November at COP27, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) launched their Net Zero Guidelines. This blueprint, stemming from the brainstorm of over 1,200 global experts, aims to help companies transition to net zero. In this article, we’ll answer 7 frequently asked questions to help you navigate the ISO Net Zero Guidelines. 

What does net zero mean? 

There’s a key difference between net zero carbon and zero carbon. While zero carbon implies no Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions have been released at all, net zero carbon means that the total sum of the carbon you release into the atmosphere should be equal to the total sum you take out of the atmosphere. Best practices for reaching net zero suggest you should first reduce your emissions as much as possible through avoidance and minimisation before investing in removal-based offsets to neutralise your residual or unavoidable carbon footprint.

Will I be net zero or carbon neutral by following the ISO guidelines?

Before delving into the guidelines, let’s clarify what they’re not about: carbon neutrality. ISO will soon release another document, ISO 14068 that will address carbon neutrality directly. Is carbon neutrality the same as net zero according to the standard setter? The short answer is no. As put by one of the document authors, “carbon neutrality is a point to net zero…net zero is a much higher standard [that is] sustained over time.” Simply put, carbon neutrality is a short-term goal, while net zero is a target you aim to reach in the long run. While awaiting guidance on how to become carbon neutral, you should focus on the ISO recommendations to accelerate your journey to net zero.

Who is this net zero guidance for? 

ISO has designed this document with businesses of all sizes in mind. Whether you’re a small or medium enterprise (SME), or a large corporation, its principles will still apply.

What are the ISO net zero guiding principles?

ISO outlined 9 key principles that businesses should keep in mind throughout their net zero journey:

  • Alignment: Your climate action and targets should align with current best policies, e.g., the Paris Agreement.

  • Urgency: While the final deadline for net zero is 2050, companies should aim for significant carbon reductions by 2030. They should also set interim targets every 2 to 5 years.

  • Ambition: The larger your emissions, the more ambitious your net zero targets should be. An example of an ambitious target could be achieving an absolute emission reduction of more than 50% by 2030 (using 2018 as baseline).

  • Prioritisation: First, you should focus on strategies to reduce your carbon footprint such as minimising energy consumption and increasing renewables use, promoting smart working to cut business travel and ensuring your supply chain is deforestation-free. Then, you can include removals to address your residual emissions.

  • Decision-making based on scientific evidence and indigenous knowledge: According to this principle, you should set science-based net zero targets and select carbon offset projects that engage with and support local indigenous communities where relevant.

  • Risk-based approach: Your decarbonisation tactics might imply some risks, so you should assess them and implement mitigation actions to reduce them. Take forest conservation, for instance. Protecting trees somewhere means avoiding logging or agricultural expansion. However, these activities could simply shift to a nearby forest, releasing emissions elsewhere. This is commonly referred to as carbon leakage. Additionally, some forest conservation projects are at risk of low permanence as they can’t ensure trees will stay there forever. While permanence is still subject to debate, some experts report that high-quality forest carbon credits should guarantee a tree permanence of at least 100 years. When deciding on a carbon offsetting project, it’s important to choose one with the lowest possible risk.

  • Credibility: Greenwashing damages both your reputation and revenue. Avoid this pitfall by ensuring that your climate mitigation results are proven by internationally accepted accounting standards such as Verra, Gold Standard.

  • Transparency, integrity and accountability: Both investors and customers are increasingly demanding that companies disclose their climate action. As recommended by the ISO guidelines, you should publish a report at least once a year publicly sharing your progress towards your net zero goals. This should include a realistic and credible baseline, data collection methods, reduction calculations, and new initiatives for next year.

  • Equity and justice: In line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), your net zero strategy should reduce social and economic inequalities, promoting a just transition. For example, if you’re a large organisation based in a developed, high-emitting nation, your “fair share” of emission reduction should be greater than that of a small business operating in a developing, low-emitting nation. Historical emissions are another important factor that affects your “fair share”. This means it would be fair for an established company who has emitted carbon for several decades to contribute more than a start-up with little to no carbon emissions history towards achieving global net zero.

Which carbon emissions should you tackle?

All of them. Hitting net zero entails addressing scope 1 (direct GHG emissions), scope 2 (indirect GHG emissions coming from the purchase of energy), and scope 3 (all other indirect GHG emissions released within your supply chain). Aside from your current carbon impact, you should take into account and compensate for your historical emissions, too.

Do net zero targets change according to sector?

Yes. According to the industry you belong to, you’ll be required to achieve a specific emissions reduction. This ranges from 72% (forest, land and agriculture) to 100% (Power).

Can you use carbon offsets to reach net zero?

Yes, you can. However, you should first mitigate emissions using avoidance and minimisation techniques before relying on carbon offsets. Once you have implemented these initiatives, you should only choose high-quality, third-party verified removal-based carbon offset options, such as direct air capture, concrete mineralisation or reforestation. Verified projects should be accredited by trustworthy standards and not counted or claimed by any other party. Unlike removal-based offsets, avoidance projects such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) won’t count towards your net zero objectives. Avoidance credits bring a number of co-benefits such as improving biodiversity and improving the livelihood of local communities.

Understanding the ISO Net Zero Guidelines

We hope this article has answered your questions on the ISO Net Zero Guidelines. If you’re looking for expertise in accurately measuring your baseline, setting science-based reduction targets or offsetting your residual emissions through high-quality removals, visit the Pledge platform