What is the Difference Between Carbon Neutral and Net-Zero?

The latest science from the IPCC has made the message clear: it’s time to put the planet first. In response, individuals and organizations alike are taking necessary steps to reduce their carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions. Amidst the frenzy of climate claims and pledges, it’s easy to get a little lost in the terminology - carbon neutrality, net zero, etc. - and what each actually means.

Below, we’ll break down the definitions of key claims and how each plays a role in helping keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5ºC by 2100.

What Does it Mean to be Carbon Neutral?

In order to be carbon neutral, a person or company must ensure that the total amount of carbon dioxide they emit is mitigated. Carbon neutrality is specific to carbon dioxide removal only, and does not include the neutralization of other greenhouse gasses.

Companies often pursue carbon neutrality by engaging in internal abatement initiatives, and then purchasing high-quality carbon credits from accredited and licensed carbon projects to account for residual carbon emissions.

What Does it Mean to be Net-Zero?

Net zero carbon is nearly synonymous with carbon neutrality; however, net zero is different because it takes into account all greenhouse gasses that are released, not just carbon dioxide. A company with a net zero emissions claim would be responsible for assuring all greenhouse gasses emitted are subsequently mitigated. In addition to carbon dioxide, these greenhouse gasses may include:

  • Methane
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Halocarbons from human activities

The Race to Net-Zero vs Carbon Neutral - and What Comes Next

All things considered, net-zero is a more ambitious aim than carbon neutrality, as it is inclusive of all greenhouse gasses and requires a significant operational emissions reduction in addition to offsetting residual emissions through carbon credits. However, these goals are not entirely mutually exclusive. In fact, achieving carbon neutrality is a step towards achieving net zero.

And ultimately, the work does not stop at zero.


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