The Difference between Net Zero and Carbon Neutral


What's the difference between net zero and carbon neutral? Well, a lot. And it's not always obvious. One is open to interpretation and undefined while the other has been defined (only recently) and linked to the science of limiting climate change. Here's what we know!

Carbon Neutral

A company can say it's carbon neutral at the point that a company has measured its carbon footprint (the total amount of emissions* of greenhouse gases* it is responsible for).

It is often only Scopes 1 and 2* which might only be somewhere between 10-30% of their total emissions. Companies then buy verified offsets* for the same volume of CO2e*. To be carbon neutral, no decarbonization or emissions reductions needs to take place. Their real emissions may be the same as before.

It’s problematic, including in the quality, cost and effectiveness of the offsets available now.

To understand the claims made by carbon neutrality it's important to see how they're counterbalancing emissions under the hood.

Are they buying low cost carbon avoidance offsets (which don't remove any emissions released) or thinking more deeply about nature based carbon removal offsets (for example reforestation and afforestation)? If it's not obvious to tell what they're using to become carbon neutral you should ask them for more detail (and while you're asking see what they say about their net zero plans too!).

Becoming carbon neutral is a good first step but, on its own, it is not a path to limiting climate change, or a place to rest for an organization aiming to decarbonize* their operations.

Net Zero

The Science Based Targets Initiatives* definition includes all Scopes 1, 2 and 3. There's not many places to hide (well, that's the theory, though it doesn't always turn out that way).

To qualify for SBTi net zero companies need to have decarbonized operations 90 to 95% from their baseline carbon emissions measurement. This includes any increase since that measurement. The remaining 5-10% would be the “net” aspect. It requires using carbon removal solutions (that pull emissions out of the atmosphere) to offset the difficult to reduce or decarbonize last few percent of emissions.

This means it’s not possible to be net zero, or on the path to net zero by a particular year without decarbonizing the vast majority of operations and supply chain. There is no room for relying on cheap and ineffective avoidance offsets for large chunks of a company's emissions.

Companies on the path to net zero will likely start using a range of carbon removal offsets - these could be either nature or technology based - early in that journey, while they work to decarbonize their operations over time (it's a big job!).

This will start to reduce their real emissions from as early a point as possible (& also by not adding so many more emissions to remove in the future).

So, when you see a company saying that they'll be Net Zero by 2035 that means they'll be 95% decarbonized by then, right?

Sadly no. That's not currently the case. The 95% definition that includes all Scopes 1, 2 and 3 has only recently been agreed late in 2021, so it's still being used to mean other things currently.

The detail matters on net zero claims as much as it does with carbon neutral.

It's not always possible to use net zero term as a general guide to an organizations policies and level of effort, without digging a little deeper into what they're actually doing. We're hoping this is starting to change now.

Curious about more terminology like Carbon Negative and Climate Positive? Take a look at this article.

Want to dig deeper? Join our free 14-day Intro to Climate email course, all based on the science.

Have hope, make progress! 💚
Team Zopeful

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Climate Buzzword Dictionary

Greenhouse Gases - Abbreviated to GHG. 98% made up of Carbon Dioxide, Methane or Nitrous Oxide. Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. See Carbon and Equivalents

Emissions - the creation and release of Greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activities

The Climate Crisis / Climate Change - the accelerating heating of our planet caused by human activity

Scope 1 - emissions from a company's own operations

Scope 2 - emissions from bought services, like electricity

Scope 3 - emissions from everything else, including supply chain and use of a product. Usually this makes up between 75-90% of an organizations emissions

Offsets/Offsetting - buying parts of carbon avoiding, reducing or removing projects that avoid or remove emissions to reduce your own footprint

Decarbonize - disconnect all the things humanity does from creating carbon emissions. The process to stop emitting Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere

Science Based Targets Initiative - the SBTi provides independent guidance on what good targets look a like for emissions reductions and removal, linked to what is needed to achieve Net Zero by 2050

Learn more climate science and related terminology

 

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