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ScienceJuly 17, 2023

Explainer: The difference between carbon neutral, zero emissions and net zero


No, they don’t all basically mean the same thing.

The climate crisis is here, and it can certainly feel overwhelming. Whether it’s the damage it causes to our landscapes, relentless rainfall or the tsunami of jargon we’re seeing, it seems to be unavoidable. A missing component of sustainability and climate action is ensuring people understand the technical terms being used. There are many technical terms which seem similar, are used interchangeably, or just make us think “huh?”. Let’s change that, otherwise the rising seas of lingo and jargon will keep crucial knowledge for sustainability and climate action in an exclusive club. 

What on the warming earth is the problem?

Under the Paris Agreement, we need to limit global warming to well below 2°C with efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. Significant emissions reductions from governments and businesses are needed, in combination with many system changes, to achieve this goal. This can make the best environmental choices easier and more accessible. 

OK, we need to make some better choices. But I find all the terminology confusing, don’t you?

It certainly can be. The world of climate and sustainability is no stranger to jargon and technical terms. After some time reading these, furrowed brows and squinting becomes second nature. In fact, it can give one permanent crow’s feet. The increase in greenwashing – where one makes misleading, inaccurate, or false claims about their sustainability efforts – is becoming problematic. When buying everyday items, we see vague labels such as “eco-friendly” and “more sustainable”. People deserve to know what they are really buying. The more we understand the terms being used, the easier it is to make more informed choices for spending our hard-earned dollars.

Vagueness is out, then. Let’s start with carbon neutral. What does this mean?

Firstly, we need to know about carbon sinks and carbon sources. A carbon source generates emissions (e.g. a petrol powered car) and a sink will absorb emissions, soaking up carbon like a sponge soaks up water (such as a forest or wetlands). Carbon neutral is when we balance or offset emissions from a carbon source by absorbing the same amount of emissions with carbon sinks. So, 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted and 10 tonnes absorbed would be a carbon neutral situation. The key word here is ‘neutral’ – we are compensating for our emissions. 

milk bottle + shipping container + tree = question mark
Carbon counting makes a precise number out of best guesses (Image: Archi Banal)

What does “offset” mean?

It’s where you remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere; you could offset some, all, or more than all of your emissions. Offsetting can be achieved by buying carbon credits. Credits are generated by creating a climate solution that absorbs, avoids, or reduces carbon emissions. These climate solutions remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (e.g. a plantation forest). After that credit is used, then it is cancelled on the relevant registry and can’t be used again. Think of offsetting as cleaning up the mess you made. Be a tidy kiwi and all that. 

OK, and what about zero emissions?

This means no greenhouse gas emissions have occurred. This should not be being used when any emissions are made at all, even if they are later offset. Any vehicle claiming to be zero emissions is too good to be true. Even if it was an electric vehicle powered by 100 per cent renewable electricity, the car parts and labour involved in building the car would have created carbon emissions. 

Good to know. And net-zero emissions? 

This is an ambition or long-term goal. It requires quite a few things:

  • Mid and long-term emissions reduction targets (e.g. 2030 and 2050)
  • The targets must be scienced-based
  • ALL greenhouse gas emissions (carbon, methane, nitrous oxide etc) covering Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions must be reduced to as close to zero as possible
  • The small amount of emissions created are completely neutralised

It is very unlikely any product or organisation is net-zero right now (but that’s a whole other article).

How does one prove their claims are accurate?

They will need to have their claims verified by an independent third-party. In Aotearoa, more and more businesses are using the likes of Ekos and Toitū Envirocare who certify a seal of approval for emissions reductions efforts. These claims are verified against standardised definitions and requirements to ensure consistency and credibility. 

So what should businesses be doing about their greenhouse gas emissions?

The best way to go about things is by avoiding emissions first and foremost, then reducing emissions. Once that is done, then one can buy quality carbon credits to offset what’s left. Avoid the mess, make less mess, and use good cleaning products. This is a game of continuous improvement. 

Can you summarise this all for me?

We need to be tackling climate change by avoiding, reducing, and (finally) offsetting our greenhouse gas emissions. From there, the terms used to market our efforts must be accurate and stand up to scrutiny. Otherwise, it’s greenwash. 

Congratulations! You now have a new array of technical terms in your climate and sustainability vocabulary.  You can now feel more confident knowing what organisations are saying when they use these terms. As long as they themselves are using them accurately, too. 

Keep going!