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

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

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A non-misleading guide to carbon-neutrality.

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 the difference between carbon-neutral, net-zero and climate positive?
World leaders rejoicing at the adoption of the Paris Agreement
(Credit: UNFCCC)

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 accounting 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.

Whats is the difference between Carbon neutral and Net-zero?

As established previously, carbon-neutral and net-zero are two similar terms. In both cases, companies are working to reduce and balance their carbon footprint. When carbon-neutral refers to balancing out the total amount of carbon emissions, net-zero carbon means no carbon was emitted from the get-go, so no carbon needs to be captured or offset. For example, a company's building running entirely on solar, and using zero fossil fuels can label its energy as “zero carbon.”

However, when referring to "net-zero", it is crucial to specify net-zero carbon or emissions. On the contrary, net-zero emissions refer to the overall balance of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) produced and GHG emissions taken out of the atmosphere. Even if the scientific concept is often applied to countries like the US, China, it can also be used for organisations. In other words, net-zero describes the point in time where humans stop adding to the burden of climate-heating gases in the atmosphere.

Carbon negative or Climate positive: doing more for the planet 

What is the difference between carbon neutral climate positive and net zero - Ikea wants to become climate positive
IKEA aims to become “climate positive” by 2030.
Credit: Oleg Laptev

Carbon Negative and climate positive are two similar terms. It occurs when a company removes or capture more CO2 from the atmosphere than it even emits. Then, the company has a negative amount of carbon emissions and positively impacts the climate

So let’s go deeper: to become climate positive, a company needs to understand exactly what its carbon footprint is. For example, if the North Face wants to launch a carbon-positive beanie, they would need to calculate the product's total carbon footprint: from the energy required to produce and distribute a product, to the emissions associated with sourcing and production, and end-to-life products. The company would need also to tackle additional measures to capture more carbon.

To do so, there is only one way: calculate the scopes 1, 2 and 3 of carbon emissions. And you are in luck because Plan A Sustainability Platform calculates all three scopes emissions scopes, enabling companies to reduce significantly their emissions.

As becoming carbon neutral or climate positive for companies is soon become the new trend or new gold, some firms are already seeing further and tend to erase the totality of their historical footprint. Microsoft was one of the first major companies to make the announcement, quickly followed by Google. 

As the EU aims to become the first continent to become carbon neutral, companies and individuals must rapidly reduce their carbon footprint. Now that you are familiar with the terms carbon-neutral, climate positive and net-zero; it is time to achieve your next sustainable step: calculating and reducing your company's carbon footprint.

Visit our website. We have the solution for you. Our Sustainability Software helps you to calculate, monitor and reduce your carbon footprint. You can become carbon neutral by offsetting the rest of your emissions through our certified partners. Request a demo.

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