Demystify Climate Jargon #1 - Carbon Neutral, Net-Zero, and Carbon Negative (Patreon Series)
Welcome to the first ever “Demystify Climate Jargon” series for EcoThink Patrons. I am so excited to get started on this series because it addresses a real need that I hear so many people talking about when it comes to climate change education: quick and easy (and fun to read!) explainers on common climate jargon.
These last two years I have been studying Carbon Management for my master’s degree, and it is ridiculous how many over-complicated terms, acronyms, and seemingly similar words that have nothing to do with each that are used in the climate change field. It drives me bonkers because it just reinforces barriers for everyone who wants to do their part and learn more about this issue, keeping climate change education in the hands of a small group of people. Quite frankly, I am fed up with the idea that a small group of experts is sufficient to solve climate change issues. We need everyone on board. I want to get YOU on board. I want to help you dismantle those barriers and empower you to take control of how you interact with climate change information.
So this is why I’m doing this Demystify Climate Jargon series. Of course, I am aware of the irony of claiming that everyone should have access to this information while putting this blog post behind the Patreon pay-wall, which is why I will post on social media the visual infographics that I have included in this article for everyone to see, and will post free to access blog posts on my website that cover the essential terms. However, I also know that sometimes we like to have a gradual introduction to information, so the monthly blog posts, which may be overwhelming for someone just starting out, will be exclusive to my Patrons who are interested in learning more. This first post will be available for free on my blog, and if you are interested in joining us on Patreon for next month’s post, click here.
So let’s get started (for real)! Today’s post is about three terms that have become real buzzwords in the climate change sphere: Carbon Neutral, Net-Zero, and Carbon Negative. I chose these three terms because they often seem to be interchangeable, and they have been used as marketing buzzwords by some companies and institutions as though they are the gold-standard for climate change action. However, there are some key differences between Carbon Neutral, Net-Zero, and Carbon Negative, and holding any of them up as a gold-standard comes with a fair share of criticisms.
The definitions of these terms (from Oxford Languages accessed from Google, and edie.net) are as follows:
Carbon Neutral: (adj.) “making no net release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, especially through offsetting emissions by planting trees.”
Net-Zero: (n.) “a target of completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity, to be achieved by reducing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
Carbon Negative: (adj.) “The reduction of an entity’s carbon footprint to less than neutral, so that the entity has a net effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than adding it.”
By reading these definitions, it becomes pretty clear that these terms are not interchangeable!
Carbon Neutral is mostly used to describe a business or a project that makes no net release of carbon dioxide. The term “net” is important because it means that the business or project may actually be releasing carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas emissions too actually - this is represented by the term carbon dioxide equivalents: CO2e), but then to mathematically zero-out the emissions the business or project can purchase “carbon offsets” to achieve the carbon neutral goal.
But what are carbon offsets? Carbon offsetting projects are projects such as renewable energy projects, reforestation or forest conservation projects, and climate change mitigation technology projects that would not be economically possible or profitable to do if the project did not receive exterior funding in the form of Carbon Offsets purchased in the Carbon Offset Market. I will cover this in more detail in a future post, but essentially it comes down to the idea that if you are a business who is emitting carbon dioxide, you can pay money to a project that is going to do work to avoid or reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere elsewhere.
Carbon neutral is an interesting term because it is so commonly held up as a gold-standard for businesses and projects to attain. Although I definitely advocate for businesses to attain this goal as soon as possible, I also believe that we need to acknowledge that at best it is a first step. Not only that, but I would also make sure that if you see this term being used by a company that you check to see if they include on their website how they attained this goal, whether they have a third-party verification or certification, and whether they indicate which if any carbon offsetting programs they support, because unfortunately these are not all created equal.
That being said, if you have a small-business owner interested in reducing your carbon footprint and seeking to take the first step of becoming a carbon-neutral business that is amazing and I am excited for you to do that. I have written blog posts available on my website detailing some steps that you can take right away that are cheap, save you money and time, and make a measurable difference in your business’ carbon emissions.
“Our goal is to reach net-zero by 2050.”
A phrase that has been touted by governments with variations on the theme the world over. Net-zero is a noun, it is the name of the goal of reaching a state of negating emissions from human-activity by doing a variety of things, including reducing emissions and also improving ways to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is a term that is more often used by governments than companies, and it refers to economy and country-wide efforts to attain that same ‘carbon-neutral’ goal that a company might do. So, the difference here is a matter of scope and a matter of who is the actor. Carbon neutral is a term applied to a project or business. Net-zero is a goal that governments and countries aim to reach. They may do this in similar ways, but net-zero is a wider scope and involves many more layers of complexity.
For example, a country whose government is keen to reach net-zero will no only have to work to reduce emissions coming from government owned buildings and infrastructure, but also work to incentivize and encourage industry and businesses within that country to become more environmentally friendly as well. Add on to that putting in place strong emissions regulations, building codes, and waste management policies, and the net-zero goal becomes a big beast that requires everyone working together to attain.
Finally, we come to carbon negative. This term didn’t come up with a definition in Google’s handy little pop up when I did an initial search, which tells me that it is a more recent term that is still being used in slightly different ways by people. However, the definition I found does a good job of explaining the purpose of this term: The reduction of an entity’s carbon footprint to less than neutral, so that the entity has a net effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than adding it.
Carbon negative is the next step that I would argue comes after attaining carbon neutrality, and frankly should be the ultimate goal of many companies and industries around the world. This term describes the effect of a project or a business that absorbs carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases more than it emits. Some examples of these activities include permaculture farming practices, seaweed aquaculture, and in some cases carbon capture and storage. Because we still haven’t reach carbon neutrality or net-zero in most areas of the world, it can seem unlikely that we will every reach a reality in which our society operates on a carbon negative level, but I believe that with some imagination and a whole lot of restructuring of our society, a carbon negative future is possible and attainable.
So now that we have covered three climate change buzzwords: carbon neutral, net-zero, and carbon negative, I hope you feel a little more in charge of how you interact with climate change information. It’s important that we keep jargon-happy corporations and institutions accountable to improve accessibility to this information for everyone, and in the meantime, I hope you can take this information and share it with people you know.
Next month’s Patreon Demystify Climate Jargon post will delve into carbon offsetting!