Woman demonstrating with placard showing No Planet B in front of a big crowd.

Carbon neutral vs net zero

Woman demonstrating with placard showing No Planet B in front of a big crowd.
Woman at climate crisis protest demonstrating with placard showing No Planet B.

Net Zero vs Carbon Neutral. What is the difference?

Carbon has been identified as a harmful pollutant that has been proven to cause global warming. While some forms of environmental pollution are still being discovered, most people know the effects of carbon-based emissions. The critical elements to being carbon-neutral are zero net emissions and the capture and sequestration of the resulting gases. This process is done by preventing unnecessary emissions such as fossil fuel usage and promoting actions that reduce emissions. In case you haven’t heard, there’s a lot of buzz around “zero” these days. It seems that the world has become obsessed with becoming “zero” in household emissions. However, with the words carbon-neutral, carbon-negative and net zero starting to be thrown around, it can be unclear what they all mean.

What is carbon-neutral?

Carbon neutrality is a vague term, as it fails to define what it means to be carbon-neutral. In addition, it can be confusing as it generally relates to measuring the carbon footprint of a product. However, simply counting and comparing carbon emissions makes no sense for most of us, as our day-to-day activities and carbon footprint add up significantly. That is why “zero” needs to be defined as well. From the simple human lifestyle choices like turning off the lights and using energy-efficient appliances to the total greenhouse gas emissions generated in making a car that gets you from point A to point B, the challenge of carbon neutrality is a real thing.

There is no clear and concise definition for the term “carbon-neutral”, partially because there is a lot of debate around what it means. While the term itself applies to many aspects of life, it generally refers to having no net release of carbon dioxide. Man-made greenhouse gases have been linked to global warming. This has led to scientists and pressure groups like Greenpeace to push the need for global carbon emissions reductions. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the atmosphere during fossil fuel combustion; in turn, these gases contribute to climate change, global warming and ocean acidification. Increased amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere also impact our food system, water supply and ecosystems. The confusing aspect comes from a number of sources, including oil companies! Oil company lobbyists are incredibly influential at seeding confusing multiple terms.

What is carbon negative?

Carbon damaging programs take the gases emitted by a power plant or factory and capture them to a medium to be stored away, thus negating them, hence the term carbon negative. Carbon negative refers to a group of policies that mandate or encourage the reduction of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, from industrial or commercial sources while maintaining the operation of existing plants or creating new ones. Although negative carbon programs have become a viable way of making a profit in the past decade, it is believed that if the environmental and clean tech industries continue to grow as they are, then carbon-negative programs will begin to enter mainstream business practices in the coming years. The consensus is that new industries and opportunities will created from building carbon-neutral power stations and factories into cities or countries with limited access to green energy resources. In addition, carbon-neutral emissions reduction programs vary from region to region due to geographical constraints; therefore, they can only really reduce carbon scrubbing efficiency instead of completely negating them.

What is net zero?

The term “net zero” refers to the energy or carbon footprint a household produces with zero fossil fuels or fossil fuel-powered electricity. Essentially, this means that zero fossil fuels have been used for producing the home’s energy or carbon footprint. Some environmentalists are advocating for this as an important metric to aim for when it comes to home, businesses and industries. This can be a hard goal to reach as it involves making many changes in the way people and businesses consume and use energy. This involves the use of science -based targets to achieve this goal and change of mindset. This mitigates the lack of clarity surrounding the various terms which are bandied about and focuses attention on a globally ambitious 1.5 °C aligned science-based target for emission reductions across vertically integrated supply chains.

What is carbon-neutral?

The term “carbon-neutral” is similar to the term “net zero.” In order to achieve this goal, a home must be carbon-neutral or carbon negative. A carbon-neutral home avoids emitting any net emissions into the atmosphere compared to an average house. This is achieved by applying measures within a home to reduce energy consumption and maximise efficiency levels. Once a property hits optimum intake of its total energy requirements, excess renewable energy can be sold back into the national power grid as it becomes too much for the property’s consumption. This, in turn, also reduces your reliance on other power companies for your energy needs. Not only goes achieving net-zero help save you money every month on bills, but it will also benefit your environment with reduced carbon emissions. This would make you and your family healthier and wealthier.

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting, also known as carbon trading, is the practice of paying someone to reduce your carbon footprint, whether it’s offsetting your footprint, a more significant proportion of your footprint or a total emissions’ reduction. The offsetting company will then provide you with a number indicating how much you have reduced your carbon footprint. The offset will come from sequestering a certain amount of carbon dioxide in some manner. Some examples are creating more greenery, saving fuel, recycling, or even purchasing a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Can I buy an offset for every trip I take? No. There are limitations to the amount of carbon certificates you can purchase, and the offsetting company can only provide you with a partial offset for every trip you take.

The purchase of carbon credits are generally frowned on in some scientific circles as it does nothing to address behavioural change and does very little to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The use of carbon offsets also does nothing to encourage individuals or businesses to reduce GHG emissions. Your carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gasses you contribute to the environment. Carbon footprint is calculated in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). This includes carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other gases that have a detrimental climate warming effect. We can all help reduce our carbon footprint by adjusting our environmental habits around energy, transport and food consumption. You can, however, also offset your emissions, so you’re not contributing to climate change by paying several organisations who buy clean energy certificates in bulk from renewable energy projects or offset land management schemes like reforestation or avoiding deforestation.

The Difference Between Net Zero and Carbon Neutral?

Net-zero is the ideal energy use goal to reduce emissions to zero by some method. Carbon-neutral energy is energy that stays carbon-neutral – neither adding nor removing CO2. This is not the same thing as “zero emissions”. These terms mean very different things, and each has a different target. The greenest properties are ones that are net zero, and some property owners have achieved this goal, while others are looking to achieve carbon neutrality. Carbon Neutral is the opposite of net zero. It’s energy neutral – neither adding nor removing carbon. Carbon-neutral properties will have a smaller carbon footprint than the energy used to heat or cool the home. The problem is, carbon-neutral properties can have a carbon footprint as high as zero when you consider the sources of carbon.


“The ‘good news’ is that the world is now witnessing the rise of an entirely new class of companies. They are relatively large but driven by a passion for social, environmental and/or financial impact. For the first time in history, an entire industry is being born — a profound transformation, like the switch from the horse and buggy to the automobile — in which corporate leaders from around the world are deciding to turn off the lights, leave the family in the house, and devote the profits to green. This would be the largest transformation this century and will be quite a revolution.

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