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Understanding the key terms: Carbon Neutral / Carbon Negative vs Net Zero vs Science Based Targets

Some simple definitions of some very poorly understood terms. Crucially, the difference between carbon neutral and Net Zero.
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There is lots of talk at the moment about “the race to Net Zero”. But most people don’t actually know what Net Zero actually means!
Most of us have now heard that the world needs to get to Net Zero by 2050, and many (but not all!) countries have pledged to achieve that. To reach this target companies also need to be Net Zero in the same timeframe. However, lots of companies are already claiming to be Carbon Neutral or even Carbon Negative.
The difference between Net Zero and Carbon Neutral is poorly understood. And when you factor in the lack of understanding around Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions then it gets even more confusing when people end up using the same terms to mean very different things!

Even more confusion around Science Based Targets (SBTs)

There is further confusion caused between Net Zero and “Science Based Targets” (covered in week 6 of this course!) and a lot of well-meaning companies have started to claim that they will be “Net Zero by 2030” (when in fact they have just set Science Based Targets as a first step towards Net Zero!). That’s actually really damaging because it makes it appear that Net Zero is easier to achieve than it actually is.
Hopefully this step of the course will clear this up and mean you can call out the companies that are getting this wrong!

OK, let’s try to clear things up

There are lots of definitions floating around so I’ve tried to pull them all together in a way that is (hopefully!) straight forward to understand. First up, let’s deal with carbon neutrality….

Carbon Neutral

This is achieved when an organisation has measured its carbon footprint (CO2e) and then carries out carbon offsetting activities to try to remove the same amount of CO2e from the atmosphere. We’ll discuss this more in week 4 but the impact of even official offsetting can be a little debatable. And whilst might sound like a good solution, it actually isn’t.
For example, many offsetting schemes involve paying money to protect a forrest. That’s a great project to support of course! But that forrest was there anyway. Just because someone isn’t cutting it down doesn’t mean that it’s ok for you to emit all that carbon. Plus there have been reports of the deforestation just moving to other locations. Or even if it does work the forrest might burn down next year, ironically due to climate change, meaning it has no impact.
Offsetting (including where and how to carry out official offsetting of different types) is something that we’ll cover in Week 4. Because official offsetting is relatively cheap then it can be very easy to achieve carbon neutrality, especially for a professional services company.
The other issue here is that, when you look at the details of claims that companies are making, they may only be carbon neutral for scope 1 and scope 2. Again, for many companies this would be incredibly cheap to do as often your scope 1 and 2 emissions account for less than 10% of your overall footprint. The point is that it’s important to look at the details of the claim being made. It’s possible to formally achieve carbon neutrality under the PAS2060 certification for scope 1 and 2 only. So it’s not wrong that company’s make these claims. But for some companies this could be “greenwashing” if they are not going much further than this.

Net Zero

Here’s where lot of confusion starts. Initially this sounds like it might be the same thing as being carbon neutral. However, it’s best to think of these as two fundamentally different concepts because they are worlds apart!
Believe it or not, it wasn’t until October 28th 2021 (despite all the talk about it over recent years!) when we had our first formal definition of Net Zero from the SBTi (the Science Based Targets Initiative). You can read more about it on their website if you like but here are the headlines.
  1. It requires a 90% to 95% (depending on your sector) reduction in your emissions in absolute terms from your base year. We’ll talk about “absolute emissions” and “intensity based emissions” later on this course. But what that basically means is that you have to reduce by that amount regardless of any growth of your business in that time.
  2. The final 5% to 10% will have to be removed using more expensive “Direct Air Capture” type approaches (not the traditional, and much cheaper offsetting projects that you can use for carbon neutrality). We are going to cover offsetting and Direct Air Capture (DAC) in week 4 of the course.
So just to confirm the difference between carbon neutrality and Net Zero:
  1. Being carbon neutral just means that you have measured your footprint and you are doing some verified offsetting to try and mitigate that.
  2. You could be carbon neutral today (for many it’s straight forwards and this course will give you all the tools that you need). But carbon neutrality does not solve climate change. Paying money to protect a forest from being chopped down is a worthy cause. But it doesn’t actually mean you can keep pumping tonnes of CO2e into the atmosphere.
  3. You can be certified for carbon neutrality across Scope 1 and 2 only (as discussed early on the course, that can be less than 10% of most companies carbon footprints so is a bit of a con!).
  4. Net Zero requires a massive carbon reduction. For most companies this is well outside the bounds of what could even be achieved in the next 10 years (at least with current technology). But it’s the goal that we have to hit by 2050.
  5. The “Net” bit in Net Zero will have to be dealt with via carbon capture techniques to draw the CO2e out of the air, and not with the cheaper offsetting projects that are allowed for carbon neutral certification.

Carbon Negative

This one is straight forwards once you have understood carbon neutrality. It’s just when a company chooses to offset more carbon than they produce. This is the position that my company took when we realised how cheap offsetting was and wanted to do more. Again, some companies may choose to claim this status for scope 1 and scope 2 only (which is cheating a bit in my opinion!) and different companies will go to different extremes in terms of just how carbon negative they are. For example, you could offset 1 tonne more CO2e than you generate (i.e. spend an extra £5 on your offsetting) and still claim to be carbon negative!
Climate Positive – This is another term that means the same as carbon negative.
Carbon Positive – I almost didn’t put this one in because it’s so confusing. However, the term is still floating around so I’ve included it. Really unhelpfully (in my opinion) it actually means the same as carbon negative. It is a marketing / PR term that still refers to a company that is making a net positive impact on the environment by offsetting more CO2e than they generate. But it does not help with the general confusion around these terms so I tend to avoid it.

So what is a Science Based Target?

I’ll cover Science Based Targets (SBTs) properly in week 6. Setting a Science Based Reduction target is one of the most important outputs from this course. And you’ll have all the tools you need to do this once you complete it!
Now that the Science Based Targets Initiative (the SBTi) have given us a working definition of Net Zero they have renamed their SBTs to be called “near-term Science Based targets”. These are what needs to be achieved by 2030 if we are going to keep warming to 1.5o. i.e. we can’t just hope technology comes along to save us and do everything between 2045 and 2050 to hit Net Zero. We have to start the reduction now.
A near-term Science Based Target is basically switching to 100% renewable energy, trying to get Scope 1 emissions to zero and a reduction in Scope 3 emissions that gives a 50% reduction overall. i.e. the main difference is that this is a 50% reduction and not a 90% to 95% reduction in emissions (neither is there any commitment to use carbon capture to remove the rest).
So keep an eye out for marketing departments getting this wrong. Every single “we’re going to be Net Zero by 2030” claim that I’ve ever seen has actually been a mis-understanding of Net Zero and the near-term Science Based Target that they have probably set (to be fair we’ve not had the definition for very long!).
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