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What Is Carbon Neutral vs. Carbon Negative vs. Net-Zero? How to Achieve Carbon Neutrality

Everything you need to know about the global effort to achieve carbon neutrality—and why it's a must in our race to reduce global warming.
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Carbon dioxide (CO2) is arguably the most serious environmental concern globally, directly contributing to global warming. CO2 is the primary greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted through human activities and accounts for 80% of all GHG emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). CO2 is released into the air predominantly due to human-controlled energy production including burning domestic coal or firewood, emissions from vehicles, and factories and power plants running on fossil fuels.

Higher levels of carbon mean enhanced greenhouse effect and increased global warming which are responsible for a host of environmental problems and catastrophes. These include forest fires, floods, droughts and erratic climatic patterns.

No wonder the shouts about limiting atmospheric carbon levels have gotten so loud in recent years. One idea that’s gaining tremendous traction is that of carbon neutrality. Since a majority of carbon is emitted by organized structures like governments and corporations, they are and will be required to play a pivotal role in neutralizing it. We’ll take you through all that you need to know about carbon neutrality and the collective efforts needed to achieve it.

What does carbon neutrality mean?

The European Parliament defines carbon neutrality as “having a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks.” Essentially, it’s an equal amount of carbon being removed from the atmosphere as is going into the atmosphere. Carbon is absorbed or removed from the atmosphere and stored in sinks (plants, oceans and soil) by a process called carbon sequestration. Therefore, any carbon emissions must be counterbalanced by carbon sequestration to achieve carbon neutrality. While carbon neutrality is today’s buzzword, there are similar but slightly different-meaning terms and ideas also entering the zeitgeist, and it’s important to know the differences.

Carbon neutral

You know that carbon neutral means the amount of carbon created must equal the carbon being removed from the atmosphere. So, how does this play out in the real world? According to ClimatePartner, “Companies, processes and products become carbon neutral when they calculate their carbon emissions and compensate for what they have produced via carbon offsetting projects.” You could even add “individuals” to that list. People and businesses can be carbon neutral if they offset their carbon output. And carbon emission, as well as absorption, is dispersed in the atmosphere uniformly. So, sequestering carbon in one part of the world for emissions made in another is an acceptable way of reaching carbon neutrality.

Carbon negative

As you can probably guess, being carbon negative is a step ahead of being carbon neutral. It’s when an organization removes more carbon from the environment than it produces. Carbon removal received a lot of emphasis in the 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The document extensively discusses carbon removal approaches for negative net emissions post-2050.

Carbon positive

Carbon positive is a term that carries the same intent as carbon negative. But in a day and age where companies are more conscientious about their marketing than ever before, many feel the word “negative” reflects poorly on their brand. Being diametrically opposite terms, the whole thing might appear somewhat confusing. So, many corporations and environmentalist groups are beginning to use the phrase “climate positive” instead, to convey the same idea.

Net-zero emissions

Reaching net-zero emissions—especially by 2030—has become a global goal, particularly after the movement triggered by young environmentalist Greta Thunberg. Net-zero emissions is the same as carbon neutral but for all greenhouse gasses (GHGs) and not just carbon. It seeks to counter all GHG emissions with GHG absorption or removal from the environment to restore the earth’s climate balance.

Climate neutral

Climate neutral is interchangeable with net-zero as it refers to the idea of having net-zero GHG emissions by balancing them with those that get removed by the earth’s natural mechanisms. These mechanisms are carbon sinks such as soil, forests, peat bogs and oceans. The UN Climate Change launched the Climate Neutral Now initiative in 2015, aimed at having a climate-neutral world by 2050, and focuses on the actions to be taken in this direction.

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Why go carbon neutral?

Governments and corporations worldwide are beginning to align their policies with carbon neutrality. They’re tracking their own actions and analyzing how they are contributing to the greenhouse effect and rising global temperatures. Businesses are an important part of this fight and must share the responsibility to support it for many reasons.

  • Reducing emissions: While “neutral” inherently means counterbalanced, it’s best when businesses focus more on reducing their emissions altogether as opposed to just offsetting or countering them. This can snowball into a larger movement at the societal, national and global level, which will benefit everyone.
  • Hedging against risks: As carbon awareness spreads globally, public opinion could be mobilized in favor of stricter legislations against emissions. A business that aligns their policy and sustainability goals with carbon neutrality is giving themselves the best insurance against potentially higher taxes, penalties and regulations in the future that may be aimed at those businesses who are not acting sustainably.
  • Transition to renewable energy: Increasing carbon neutrality and transitioning to a renewable energy economy go hand-in-hand. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for powering our economies means increased support for cleaner energy like solar, wind and tidal.
  • Reducing costs and increasing revenues: Changing the work patterns of employees, such as energy use and work travel, is important for achieving carbon neutrality. Carbon neutral efforts can also lead to new opportunities in terms of products, services and technologies.

How to achieve carbon neutrality

Having acknowledged the necessity to go carbon neutral, there is a need to develop a shared vision towards the goal. A number of measures are needed at multiple levels beginning from the individual or domestic level, to corporations and governments.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that the highest levels of greenhouse emissions, a whopping 29%, comes from the transportation sector. A great way to avoid these emissions is remote working and telecommuting. The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with tremendous advancements in Information and Communications Technology (ICT), has presented us with an opportunity like never before. This is an area where businesses and individuals must come together to foster an efficient new work culture which minimizes the need to travel. (One way to start? Learn how to travel sustainably and reduce your environmental impact on the places you visit.)

At the governmental level, there has to be an immediate end to all approvals of new gas and oil fields or coal-based power plants. There’s a huge role for media and environment groups here, especially in democratic nations, to mobilize public opinion against these ventures.

On the other hand, a wide discourse in favor of renewable energy like solar, wind and tidal, can also help shape policies. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has already called for a historic level of new investments, of up to $4 trillion by 2030, in clean energy.

Even at the individual level, changing small day-to-day habits can go a long way. Walking or cycling for short distances, using public transport more often and carpooling with friends or neighbors, are great ways to show commitment towards carbon neutrality. By some estimates, these alone can bring down emissions by around 4% in advanced economies.

A natural gas power plant.

Why it’s not possible to generate zero carbon emissions (and why this is OK)

While net-zero emissions refer to counterbalancing GHGs using offset projects, zero carbon emissions means generating no GHGs whatsoever. While a lot of emphasis is being placed on reducing carbon emissions, eliminating its production is impossible.

This is because humans convert land to food and fiber production, making their interference with the natural carbon cycle inevitable. Carbon emission to a certain extent is, in fact, an essential part of our natural environment. Besides, carbon dioxide is a long-living gas that lingers on even after emissions stop. So, you cannot pull the plug on emissions and expect them to disappear overnight.

Having said that, it’s okay if we are not able to forgo our emissions completely. If emissions are kept within controllable limits, Earth’s powerful natural carbon sequestration forces can still readjust and restore the atmospheric balance. It’s only when our activities release uncontrolled and unregulated amounts of carbon do the environmental processes get disturbed.

Who’s going carbon neutral?

Here are a few instances of promising carbon neutral projects that could be considered “pioneers” of this new voyage.

According to the UN, cities produce more than 60% of GHG emissions. In 2017, mayors of 25 megacities committed to become carbon neutral by 2050. They pledged and have already started working towards this goal. Together, these cities are home to around 150 million people.

Here’s a list of these cities:

  • Austin
  • Accra
  • Barcelona
  • Boston
  • Buenos Aires
  • Cape Town
  • Caracas
  • Copenhagen
  • Durban
  • London
  • Los Angeles
  • Melbourne
  • Mexico City
  • Milan
  • New York City
  • Oslo
  • Paris
  • Philadelphia
  • Portland
  • Quito
  • Rio de Janeiro
  • Salvador
  • Santiago
  • Stockholm
  • Vancouver

Also, corporations these days control vast resources, process them for manufacturing, and market their products globally. All these activities emit enormous amounts of carbon and must therefore be kept in check.

Here are seven major multinational companies that have pledged to turn carbon neutral:

Company Targeted year of neutrality
Google 2007
Netflix 2022
Apple 2030
Facebook 2030
Amazon 2040
Coca-Cola 2050
Nestlé 2050

Only Google has achieved carbon neutrality so far. Now the company is aiming for another sustainability goal, that is eliminating a lifetime of carbon footprint since its inception.

What are carbon offsets and do they help?

While the primary focus has to be on reducing emissions, you may use carbon offsets to counterbalance their effect. When you buy a carbon offset, your money goes into a project that helps reduce or avoid GHG emissions. This project may have started already and your money helps support it. Examples of such projects could be afforestation drives, investment in renewable energy, research in electric vehicles etc.

Every carbon credit is equivalent to one metric ton of carbon removed or avoided. One metric ton of CO2 is produced in driving a car from San Francisco to Atlanta (roughly 2,500 miles).

Carbon offsets use internationally recognized methods to determine the quantity of emissions a particular project will reduce. You simply need to calculate your own emissions and buy adequate offsets to counterbalance your net effect on the environment.

Can we just buy carbon offsets for everything?

Given the collective nature of global emissions, you can purchase offsets against all the carbon you release into the atmosphere. Governments can buy them for their industrializing activity and corporations for their production or supply. Ecologically aware individuals can purchase these to offset the effect of their travel and energy consumption.

But the problem of carbon emissions can simply not be tackled by making offsets a starting point of our mission. That would be a rather negative approach which won’t take us very far in our fight against emissions. The effort has to start from reducing emissions through substantial measures like minimizing use of fossil fuels and investing in clean energy, rather than finding ways to counter them through offsets. Carbon offsets must only be seen as the final instruments that can balance out the leftover emissions which we could not eliminate despite our best efforts.

Our future with carbon neutrality

The UN calls carbon neutrality by 2050 “the world’s most urgent mission.” For a world trying to envision a secure and sustainable future, carbon neutrality is the most modern yet natural tool.

A proactive approach at this stage is a must. But more than just policy, debates and media coverage, on-ground action is required. Political capital is already in place due to vastly affected populations across the world. There is now a need to build global coalitions among governments, corporations and climate action NGOs.

Financial commitments in this regard are of utmost importance and pumping adequate resources into the effort is essential. Technology, research and innovative practices must come together and resonate to make this promising movement a grand success for humanity.

The growing impetus given to renewable energy is another promising development. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), renewable energy and energy efficiency measures can potentially achieve 90% of the required carbon reductions.

Carbon neutrality is an all-encompassing practical approach towards achieving our environmental sustainability goals. Its greatest promise lies in its simplicity, transparency and measurability. Making the most of it, however, rests completely in the hands of proactive corporations, governments and of course eco-aware individuals.

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