What is the difference between carbon-neutral, net-zero and climate positive?

Carbon-neutral is the new gold. Nowadays, more and more companies pledge to become carbon neutral, net-zero or even climate positive. With global giants like Google, who claims that they are the first company to eliminate its carbon legacy, we may ask: how is it possible? 

Terms like “carbon-neutrality”, “net-zero” or “climate positive” have been around for a while, but for the last couple of years, small startups to global corporations have integrated them, mainly for mainstream marketing purposes. The diversity of phrases and the lack of clarity around them can mislead well-intentioned consumers. However, communicating transparently about them may encourage businesses to be more proactive.

Read our article “How to spot greenwashing”

According to the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement, there are only 29 years remaining to reach global net-zero emissions. So let’s understand better what the lingo around carbon neutrality is. To verify if a company is willing to reduce or even erase their carbon footprint when they are claiming carbon-neutrality, it is vital to comprehend these terms.

To start, let’s deep dive into the core of carbon-neutrality: 

  • Carbon neutral means that any CO2 released into the atmosphere from a company’s activities is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed.
  • Climate positive means that activity goes beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • Carbon negative means the same thing as “climate positive.”
  • Carbon positive is how organisations describe climate positive and carbon negative. It’s mainly a marketing term, and understandably confusing–we generally avoid it.
  • Climate Neutral refers to reducing all GHG to the point of zero while eliminating all other negative environmental impacts that an organisation may cause. 
  • Net-Zero carbon emissions mean that an activity releases net-zero carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
  • Net-Zero emissions balance the whole amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) released and the amount removed from the atmosphere.

What is carbon-neutrality?

Carbon neutral was the New Oxford American Dictionary‘s word of the year in 2006 – and since then, has been catapulted into the mainstream world. By definition, carbon-neutral (or carbon neutrality) is the balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon emissions from carbon sinks. Or simply, eliminate all carbon emissions altogether. Carbon sinks are any systems that absorb more carbon than they emit, such as forests, soils and oceans. 

According to the European Union Commission, natural sinks remove between 9.5 and 11 Gt of CO2 per year. To date, no artificial carbon sinks can remove carbon from the atmosphere on the necessary scale to fight global warming. Hence, to become carbon-neutral, companies have two options: reducing drastically their carbon emissions to net-zero or balancing their emissions through offsetting and the purchase of carbon credits. 

What does it mean to become carbon-neutral?

Becoming carbon neutral is the new mantra of Wall Street and worldwide companies, but how to make it happen? As experts in the field, Plan A advises companies to apply a carbon accounting framework to the initiative they are trying to address. First, we advise you to calculate your company’s carbon footprint, which you can do easily with our Carbon Management software.

Once the total carbon footprint is calculated, you will have a better sense of how much your company’s need to counteract. Then, reduce carbon emissions by analysing the worst carbon indicators – where your company emit the most and acting upon it. Finally, offset what’s left. 

It is impossible to generate zero-carbon emissions; therefore, offsetting is a viable approach to become carbon-neutral. Offsetting your carbon emissions sends a strong message to your community, that you are committed to paving the way for a sustainable future. The funds from neutralising your carbon footprint will be providing low-carbon technology to communities most at risk of the impacts of climate change. However, you have to ensure that the offsetting project is transparent and involves local communities in the process. 

Author: Tara Bernoville
Source: PlanA