There Is A Difference Between Carbon-Neutral And Net-Zero

There Is A Difference Between Carbon-Neutral And Net-Zero

May 12, 2023

With more countries and corporations rushing to set carbon-neutral or net-zero targets, the two concepts are often used interchangeably. However, knowing the difference between them is critical to our fight against irreversible climate change.

According to the Net Zero Tracker organization, as of June 2022, “more than one-third (702) of the world’s largest publicly traded companies have set net-zero targets.”  Upon inspection of the Net Zero’s database, an additional 263 companies have been identified as committed to carbon-neutrality or carbon-neutral targets. Given that the last group is made up of some of the biggest names of the corporate world, such as Apple, General Motors, Volkswagen, understanding the difference between setting net-zero versus carbon-neutral targets is particularly significant for consumers, policymakers, and businesses in the fight to minimize the effects of climate change.

The terms “carbon-neutral” and “net-zero” are both related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and often used interchangeably on the global sustainability scene. Although these terms may seem similar, they are fundamentally distinct as they represent different concepts.

  • Carbon-neutral refers to achieving a balance between the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere and the amount removed from it.
  • Net-zero refers to achieving a balance between all greenhouse gas emissions and their removal from the atmosphere.

To expand on the definition, carbon-neutral refers specifically to achieving a balance between carbon emissions and carbon removal. Carbon is one of the most significant greenhouse gases, and reducing carbon emissions is critical for mitigating the effects of climate change. Carbon-neutral can be achieved through a combination of reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon removal or offsets, such as reforestation or carbon capture and storage. The goal of achieving carbon-neutral is to reduce the net amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to zero, preventing further warming of the planet.

That brings us to the first important difference between carbon-neutrality and net-zero targets. Carbon-neutral calculations typically only include emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and do not account for other greenhouse gases such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases. The absence of methane from the carbon-neutral calculations is particularly damaging as methane is approximately 28 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a 100-year timescale (See Global Warming Potential article), and it is the second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide in terms of its impact on the climate. Methane is emitted from a variety of sources, including natural gas production, coal mining, landfills, and agriculture.

In particular, agriculture is responsible for a significant portion of methane emissions. Livestock, such as cows and sheep, produce methane during digestion through a process called enteric fermentation. In addition, manure management, rice cultivation, and the use of synthetic fertilizers can also contribute to methane emissions from agriculture. Methane emissions contribute to the warming of the atmosphere and can exacerbate the effects of climate change, including more frequent and severe weather events, sea level rise, and changes in ecosystems. As such, reducing methane emissions from agriculture is an important part of mitigating the effects of climate change.

In contrast, net-zero refers to achieving a balance between all greenhouse gas emissions and their removal from the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. Achieving net-zero involves reducing emissions of all greenhouse gases to as close to zero as possible and then removing any remaining emissions through carbon removal or offsets. The goal of achieving net-zero is to stabilize the climate and prevent catastrophic warming of the planet.

Another distinction worth highlighting between net-zero and carbon-neutral targets is that, according to Carbon Trust, organizations that set carbon-neutrality targets are only required to report their Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, with Scope 3 emissions reporting being encouraged but not mandatory. That is particularly damaging for the success of most sustainability efforts as Scope 3 emissions account on average for over 75% of a company’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That important difference also implies there is a level of ambition imbalance between those organizations opting for carbon-neutral targets  versus the ones who set net-zero goals for themselves. Achieving carbon-neutral can be accomplished through a combination of reducing emissions and increasing carbon removal, while achieving net-zero requires significant reductions in emissions, as well as large-scale carbon removal or offsets and may require more significant changes to our economy, energy systems, and lifestyles.

As a final comment, while both carbon-neutral and net-zero are important goals for mitigating climate change, achieving net-zero is a more ambitious goal and  policymakers should ensure that the biggest organizations on Earth, whether governmental or corporate, eventually commit to achieving net-zero targets if the world is serious about reversing the damage already done to the climate.

Ed.  Photo by Cdd20 on Unsplash.

Editor’s note: The lawsuit against the US airline Delta Air Lines, accusing it of misleading consumers by stating that it is the only carbon neutral airline is an interesting one to watch in this space.


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