What's the difference between Net Zero, Carbon Neutral, Carbon Negative and Climate Positive?


There's A LOT of terminology in the climate space. They can be helpful and add a clarity and common terms we can all use. Sometimes though they can definitely be confusing, used in conflicting ways or in the worst scenarios used to confuse the issues at hand.

Some of the language and frameworks are still in flux, though it is getting clearer all the time with definitions being agreed on as we all work on limiting the climate change caused by human activity.

We put together this quick guide to some of the top level definitions and what they mean so when you seem them out in the wild you'll know what is being promised.

Carbon Neutral - At the point that a company has measured its carbon footprint. It is often only Scopes 1 and 2*. Companies then buy verified offsets for the same volume of CO2e*. To be carbon neutral, no decarbonization or emissions reductions needs to take place. It’s problematic, including in the efficacy of the offsets* available now.

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

Carbon Negative - This is similar to Carbon Neutral. By offsetting more than the company emissions measured, thereby being negative of emissions on paper. For the more ambitious this may also include offsetting historical emissions. Again, without decarbonizing operations it’s not directly tackling the root cause of climate change.

Carbon Positive - You might see this term occasionally. It can mean the same as Climate Positive and Carbon Negative. We don’t think this one will be used for much longer, as it adds to the confusion.

Net Zero - The Science Based Targets Initiatives* definition includes all Scopes 1, 2 and 3. To qualify as 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 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 way to net zero by a particular year without decarbonizing the vast majority of operations and supply chain. There is no room for relying on avoidance measures for large chunks of your company's emissions.

Companies on the path to net zero will likely start using carbon removal offsets early in that journey, while they work to decarbonize their operations fully. This will reduce their ongoing emissions from as early a point as possible (& also by not adding as many historical emissions to remove in the future).

So, when you see a organization 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. Prior to then net zero by any future date might have meant a much smaller percentage decarbonized with higher amounts of varying quality and efficacy offsets, and possibly even a high proportion. This would give the orgnaisation a lot of room to continue to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Which is counter productive in tackling The Climate Crisis. We're pleased the definition has gotten more in line with the science.

The detail matters on net zero claims. It's not always possible to use this 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.

Climate Positive - Sometimes this means the same as Carbon Negative and Positive. We think for Climate Companies* this term has the right kind of aspiration to include biodiversity and nature regeneration elements in it and its definition has room to be further refined.

We’re thinking about how it could mean something like Net Zero+, Planet Positive or Nature Positive - we're not sure right now!

We’d like to see Climate Companies taking the science backed and reduction focus of net zero and then combining that with a range of environmentally positive activities that they support in addition to their roadmap to decarbonize. These may include things like biodiversity*, ecosystem preservation and regeneration, as well as the circular economy*.

If you're just starting out on your journey, try our Intro to Climate 14-day email co urse to take your first leap by connecting all the dots. It starts every Monday and you'll be joining other awesome humans learning on it from over 50 countries all around the world.

Or, if you're more interested in the role of businesses you'll love our free Climate Companies 3-day email course to take your next step.

Have hope, make progress! 💚

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Climate Buzzword Dictionary

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

Scope 1, 2, 3 - a framework for measuring different types of emissions by organizations

Scope 1 Emissions - emissions from a company's own operations

Scope 2 Emissions - emissions from bought services, like electricity

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

Carbon Dioxide and equivalents - bundle of main greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane & nitrous oxide. Abbreviated CO2e.

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

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

The Climate Crisis - the accelerating heating of our planet due to human activity, mostly due to our use of fossil fuels

Climate Companies - a company aiming to put climate at the core of their mission and truly decarbonize their organization as well as having a positive overall impact in limiting climate change and biodiversity & biosphere

Biosphere - the regions of the surface and atmosphere of the earth occupied by living organisms (it's pretty much all of it). It's the combined total of all habitats and ecosystems

Biodiversity - the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is usually considered to be important and desirable to maintain balanced ecosystems

Circular Economy - a system where all waste is minimised by recycling most end-of-life products for their materials to be reused again and again. Meaning we'd need less primary materials to be extracted or created. Sometimes referring to a "closed loop" or "zero waste" process

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