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 decarbonising our economy.
Carbon neutrality is achieved when an entity’s carbon dioxide emissions are balanced by carbon dioxide removals. It is typically achieved by reducing and offsetting Scope 1 and 2 emissions, but can also be achieved for a particular product or service.
In simpler terms, carbon neutrality means that an entity emits no more carbon dioxide than it removes from the atmosphere.
Net zero emissions is a state in which the net amount of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities to the atmosphere is reduced to zero. This can be achieved by reducing emissions as much as possible and offsetting the remaining emissions.
Net zero emissions requires a comprehensive approach, involving multiple stakeholders, strategies, and investments over a longer period of time. It also requires businesses and governments to prioritize reducing their overall emissions as much as possible before relying on any offsets.
To better understand the differences between carbon neutrality and net zero, we’ll compare them across a few key areas: the greenhouse gases included, the operations included, the scale and timeframe of each, the use of offsetting, and their global prevalence.
We’ll be using two established standards that set out their differences, these are:
- The definition of net zero from the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi)
- The definition of carbon neutral set out by the British Standards Institution (BSI) in PAS 2060
What is carbon neutrality?
According to the British Standards Institution (BSI):
Carbon neutrality means not adding new greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the atmosphere. Where emissions continue, they must be offset by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere, for example through carbon capture and reforestation that is supported by carbon credit schemes.British Standards Institution (BSI)
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?
According to the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi):
A state of balance between anthropogenic emissions and anthropogenic removals. In most cases, it is important to specify either net zero CO2 emissions or net zero GHG emissions, which also includes non-CO2 GHGs. Net-zero GHG emissions must be achieved at the global level to stabilise temperature increase, and targets set using the Net-Zero Standard must cover all UNFCCC/Kyoto GHG emissions.Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi)
So, let’s break these down a little more.
First, we need to understand what gasses are included in being carbon neutral or net zero:
- Carbon neutral only covers emission reductions in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2).
- Net zero on the other hand, means 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
Emission scopes categorise the sources of greenhouse gas emissions into three categories: Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3.
What are emission scopes? Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from owned or controlled sources, such as from owned vehicles and industrial processes. Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from purchased electricity, heat, or steam. Scope 3 emissions are all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain, such as emissions from suppliers and customers.
- Carbon neutrality typically focuses on emissions from Scope 1 and 2.
- Net zero requires addressing emissions across all three scopes. This is a more ambitious goal than carbon neutrality, as it requires companies to take responsibility for their indirect emissions.
Scale and timeframe
Timeframe is an important distinction between these two methods, as it often considers the effort going into each initiative.
- Carbon neutrality can be achieved more quickly and on a smaller scale, such as for a particular product or service (e.g., a carbon-neutral computer), although it can also be applied to an entire organization.
- Net zero targets emissions reduction across an entire business and its value chain. This requires a more comprehensive approach, involving multiple stakeholders, strategies, and investments over a longer period of time. Most governments and businesses have set 2050 as a goal to achieve net zero emissions.
Avoidance vs offset
There is much debate about the efficacy of offsetting emissions, but it can still be a useful tool to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Carbon neutrality can be achieved quickly by purchasing carbon credits to offset all emissions produced. However, this approach does not address the underlying problem of high emissions.
- 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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