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What is the difference between carbon neutral and net zero?

Many organisations talk about making themselves carbon neutral, or working towards net zero emissions. But what exactly do these terms mean, and are they referring to the same thing?

The need to fight global warming has never been clearer, and as part of this, organisations ranging in scale from small businesses to supranational unions are taking steps to make themselves greener.

Carbon neutral vs net zero: understanding the difference

Carbon neutral and net zero are buzzwords that pretty much all of us have now heard of. They’re often used interchangeably by everyone from politicians to CEOs and even some climate scientists and activists - but is it right to do this? Strictly speaking, no it isn’t. Although the phrases have very similar meanings, there are in fact important distinctions between them.

What does carbon neutral mean?

If something is carbon neutral, it doesn’t add to the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. This is achieved by balancing activities that create CO2 emissions with measures designed to absorb these emissions. For example, a business may pay for trees to be planted. Trees naturally absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, making them what’s referred to as a ‘carbon sink’.


Typically, organisations that aim to be carbon neutral firstly prioritise taking measures to reduce their carbon emissions. This could include using renewable energy sources, such as ground source heat pumps or solar panels, for example. However, because it’s currently impossible for organisations to completely eliminate their carbon emissions, carbon off-setting measures are a crucial aspect of working towards carbon neutrality.

What does net zero mean?

Net zero is a narrower term than carbon neutrality. It also involves the offsetting of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but it specifically refers to removing an equal amount of GHGs, such as CO2, sulphur dioxide or methane, to those emitted due to human activity. While carbon neutrality permits a range of offsetting measures, net zero only allows certain forms of GHG removal in certain instances. The UN states that organisations should use only certified forms of GHG removal so they can be confident that any carbon removed from the atmosphere is permanently sequestered.

The Carbon Trust is one of the organisations that has played an important role in helping to define the term net zero. Talking specifically about businesses striving for this goal, the Carbon Trust says net zero is achieved when the activities within the value chain of a company cause no net impact on climate due to GHG emissions.

Net zero is also used to describe the possible future point in time when humans stop adding to the burden of gases in the atmosphere that are responsible for warming.  

According to the Carbon Trust, the phrase net zero has become a “proxy for climate ambition”. The charity suggests that one of the reasons for the popularity of net zero targets is the fact that the term itself implies strong action and directly embraces the need to stop global net emissions. For many people, it’s seen as the hallmark of leadership on climate action.

How many countries have committed to net zero by 2050?

Many scientists agree that if we’re to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to limit temperature rises globally by 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Right now, we’re already at over 1 °C above pre-industrial temperatures, and emissions are still going up. To prevent warming exceeding 1.5 °C, experts predict that we need to cut emissions by 45% by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2050. This is undoubtedly a huge challenge and it calls for action on a massive scale.

So far, more than 70 countries have signed up to reach net zero by 2050, including some of the biggest polluters, including the United States and China. The European Union has also made this pledge. It’s not just countries, and unions of countries, that are committing to fight climate change; thousands of businesses, educational institutions and other organisations have joined an initiative called the Race to Zero, which is a pledge to take immediate action to halve global GHG emissions by the year 2030.

The move to reducing our GHG emissions, whether we call this carbon neutrality, net zero or anything else, will involve transformational change. We are all likely to feel this in everything from the way we heat our homes, to the cars we drive, to the food we eat.


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