Digital Twin Explainer Series: Defining ‘Net-Zero’ and the Role of Digital Twins

Date Published

4th Jun 2021

Karen Duffin
Corporate Communications Manager, IES

Next up in our Digital Twin explainer series, we look at defining the term ‘net-zero’ – how this differs from zero-carbon and the role that digital twins have to play in making such targets achievable.

What do we mean by the term ‘Net-Zero’?

The terms ‘net-zero’ and ‘zero-carbon’ can often be mistaken to mean the same thing and are sometimes used interchangeably. However, it is important to know that there is actually a very key distinction between the two.

The term zero-carbon is fairly self-explanatory. It can be used to refer to any technology, service or activity which does not emit any carbon emissions. In other words, these solutions are carbon-free.

Net-zero, on the other hand, takes a slightly different approach by considering ‘net’ emissions. This means that, in a net-zero emissions scenario, we will still emit some carbon. However, the intention is that these emissions will be cancelled out by offsetting initiatives, which aim to extract the equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere that has been emitted, giving a “net-zero” balance.

Examples of offsetting initiatives that may be used in a net-zero scenario may include carbon capture technology or other carbon sequestration initiatives, such as tree planting, or investing in clean renewable energy projects. By matching the carbon reductions of offsetting with the total carbon emitted by an activity, that activity can be said to be carbon neutral or net-zero. Carbon trading can also factor in to the net-zero approach, where a country, company or other entity participate in the buying and selling of carbon “credits.” These permit the buyer to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide, over and above their agreed quota, while the seller will benefit from having stayed below their emissions threshold and being able to profit from their excess credits.

While offsetting may be effective in some cases (if it is done right), the problem with these initiatives is that, currently, they are notoriously difficult to regulate and verify that the promised carbon reductions are being achieved. At the end of the day, a net-zero approach still means we will be producing carbon emissions, so for this approach to succeed it is crucial that our offsets stack up. Take tree planting, for example: it’s all very well to say we will plant x number of trees. But how long will it take those trees to reach maturity and absorb the carbon you have already released into the atmosphere? Will you be held to account and made to seek out other offsets should those trees burn down? Similarly, investments in clean renewable energy projects, e.g. wind and solar, which are tied to variations in climate, will only perform when conditions allow, so thought needs to go into where these investments will be best placed to secure the desired outcomes.

What role do Digital Twins have to play?

Many countries around the world have set targets to become net-zero within the coming decades, a common target being 2050. However, achieving net-zero will require careful balancing of our energy networks and carbon emitting activities, with unprecedented change needed across all levels of society around the world. 

Digital Twins can serve as a key enabler to this transition, making it possible to use a virtual model to accurately measure, monitor and predict how different net-zero strategies work together in the real world. This also means being able to simulate and verify how the best net-zero options may vary across different locations and scenarios, and also how the strategies may need to be adapted over time to ensure progress remains on track.

We’ve looked extensively at how net-zero and even zero-carbon targets can be achieved within the context of a variety of built environments around the world, using our ICL Digital Twin technology. And while achieving a net-zero built environment will be challenging, it is certainly possible given the right tools.

Why not check out some of our net-zero building and ICL digital twin case studies? Or for further information, visit


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