“Carbon neutral”, “net-zero”, “climate positive”: What do they really mean?

5 July, 2021 | Issie Hatfield
Categories: Carbon Offsetting

You may have heard governments or organisations pledge to “achieve carbon neutrality” by a certain date or reach “net-zero emissions.” Some have even pledged to go “carbon negative.” Yet, do we know what these terms really mean? In order to understand and scrutinise these climate goals, we must first understand how these common buzzwords differ.

Climate-related terms have varying definitions, but fundamentally these terms can be defined as the following:

  • Carbon neutral means that the CO2 emissions are effectively “cancelled” by balancing carbon emissions with carbon reduction credits (aka offsetting). Offsetting CO2 emissions means using carbon credits generated by positive impact projects (e.g. solar projects) to reduce or neutralise the impact generated by your activities. This term is often misunderstood, as there is no need for emission reductions to have taken place. Therefore, some parties are working towards reducing CO2 emissions whilst others simply stabilise, or even increase, emissions.
  • Climate neutral refers to reducing all GHGs to the point of zero while eliminating all other negative environmental impacts that an organisation may cause.
  • Net-zero carbon emissions means that any CO2 released into the atmosphere by a company’s activities is balanced by an equivalent amount removed, in line with the latest climate science. Remaining residual emissions can be balanced through carbon removal credits, whereby parties often go the extra mile by permanently removing carbon from the atmosphere (e.g. reforestation projects).
  • Zero carbon means that it doesn’t emit any carbon at all.
  • Carbon negative/climate positive are mainly marketing terms, but they essentially mean that an activity goes beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions to actually create an environmental benefit by removing additional CO2 from the atmosphere (i.e. reducing carbon emissions/positively impacting the climate).

To summarise, carbon-neutral means balancing carbon emissions via carbon reduction credits, without the need to reduce emissions, whereas, net-zero means reducing emissions as much as possible and then balancing remaining residual emissions through carbon removal credits.

It’s vital for governments and organisations around the world to be aware of these nuances and ensure that they properly communicate them so as not to create confusion among the public and risk setting goals that actually won’t do much to mitigate climate change in the long term. As for the public, we must try to understand these terms in order to accurately determine how ambitious an organisation/country is being when they announce their climate targets and know when to spot greenwashing!