As we continue to grapple with the looming threat of climate change, it is essential to understand the terminology surrounding sustainability. In this article, we explain the difference between carbon neutral vs net zero and underscore their significance in preventing the greatest impacts of climate change.
The terms “net zero” and “carbon neutral” are often used interchangeably by business leaders, marketers, and PR agencies, often leading to confusion among customers and other professionals.
It’s important to recognise that while both terms share the common goal of reducing carbon emissions, they each have distinct areas of focus within the larger effort of decarbonizing our economy.
What is carbon neutrality?
Carbon neutrality refers to a business that has achieved a balance between the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by its operations and the amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere. This is achieved through a combination of reducing carbon output and offsetting any remaining emissions through methods such as reforestation, carbon capture and other forms of carbon sequestration.
This concept is sometimes referred to as “net zero carbon,” which can further add to the confusion between the two terms.
What is net zero?
Net zero, in contrast, involves a comprehensive reduction of a company’s greenhouse gas emissions throughout its entire value chain, to support the global target to limit temperature increases to 1.5 °C.
What is the difference between carbon neutral vs net zero?
To understand the differences between carbon neutral and net zero, we will refer to two established standards that set out the differences between the terms: the definition of net zero from the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and the definition of carbon neutral set out by the British Standards Institution (BSI) in PAS 2060. So, what’s the difference?
- Becoming carbon neutral only covers emissions from carbon dioxide.
- Achieving net zero emissions entails not only reducing carbon emissions but also addresses all greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and other hydrofluorocarbons.
Differences in scope
- Carbon neutrality typically focuses on reducing and offsetting emissions from Scope 1 and 2, with Scope 3 emissions encouraged but not required.
- In contrast, achieving net zero requires addressing emissions across all three scopes, including those generated by suppliers, customers, and other indirect sources, as well as direct emissions from a company’s operations.
Scale and timeframe
- Carbon neutrality can be achieved quicker and on a far smaller scale, such as for a particular product or service (e.g. a carbon neutral computer) while also organisation wide.
- In comparison, net zero targets emissions reduction across an entire business and its value chain, and therefore requires a more comprehensive approach, involving multiple stakeholders, strategies, and investments over a longer period of time.
Avoidance vs offset
- Carbon neutrality can be achieved quickly by significant purchase of carbon credits to offset any emissions produced.
- Net zero goes one step further by urging businesses and governments to prioritise reducing their overall emissions as much as possible before relying on any offsets to mitigate the remaining emissions.
Since the formulation of the Paris Agreement in 2015, achieving net zero has emerged as the gold standard for global emission reduction efforts. The overarching goal is to limit the rise in mean global temperature to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels, with a preference to limit the increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) to minimise the impacts of climate change.
Current scientific research conducted by Stanford University and Colorado State University has found that exceeding the 2 °C increase has a 50% chance of happening by the mid-century.
To achieve the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, the concept of net zero emissions represents the most viable approach for businesses and governments to establish dependable frameworks that can rapidly reduce emissions and effectively mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change on our planet.
Achieving carbon neutrality and net zero emissions are both important steps towards mitigating the impacts of climate change. Carbon neutrality can be thought of as the foundation, while net zero represents the next level of ambition.
But, it is important to remain vigilant to deceptive marketing around these terms. Without proper regulation and enforcement, these may result in businesses making false claims about their sustainability, otherwise known as ‘greenwashing’.
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