It’s easy to get tied in knots with sustainability jargon and greenwash. Navigating your way through the many standards, frameworks, and targets can be tough. The purpose of this article is to clarify the different definitions around decarbonisation and look at whether a new corporate standard for net zero could help matters.
In June 2019, the UK government amended the Climate Change Act from 80% to 100% GHG reduced emissions – or ‘net zero’ – by 2050. In the same year, the European Commission announced the European Green Deal as the strategy through which to achieve EU ‘climate neutrality’ by 2050.
The terms “net zero” and “climate neutral” are part of the lexicon of global climate change terms. Though they are sometimes used interchangeably, they have different definitions. Understanding the nuances is important.
- Carbon neutral is about reaching a balance between the emission of carbon into the atmosphere, and the removal of the climate pollutant through carbon sinks or other offsets. Put most simply, it is a “point in time” statement, where historical emissions are measured and offset, an approach which is holding less and less credibility with investors and customers.
- Climate neutral means the same but refers to the emission and mitigation of all greenhouse gases – not just carbon. That said, some take the definition further to include the elimination of all other negative environmental impacts, or at least some climate impacts beyond GHG emissions, such as radiative forcing from aircraft (often used to calculate emissions from business travel).
- Net zero carbon (‘net’ meaning to balance or cancel out) also means achieving a balance between emissions into the atmosphere and their removal. However, it also implies making changes to reduce carbon emissions to the lowest amount – and offsetting as a last resort. Those leftover emissions are often referred to as residual emissions. Since a net zero approach will involve a clear reduction strategy, ideally before offsetting unavoidable emissions, the EU’s ‘climate neutral’ target is, for all intents and purposes, a ‘net zero’ target.
- Climate positive (aka carbon negative… confusing, isn’t it!) is another term that is sometimes used. This means that an activity goes beyond achieving net zero carbon emissions to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Some argue that net zero is not enough and businesses must shoot for net positive.
Certainly, offsetting alone is an approach which is holding less and less credibility with investors and customers, but for some ‘net zero’ is also in the cross hairs. According to Oxford economist Kate Raworth, it
is in danger of becoming “just another piece of jargon” as many firms continue to operate based on linear, extractive business models. She calls for companies to go past zero into an era of sequestration where
we are drawing down far more carbon than the world is emitting. However let’s not run before we can walk.
Net zero carbon commitments always involve emission reductions. This requires an initial carbon footprint measurement. This is followed by strategic GHG emission reduction initiatives, the implementation of
renewable energy solutions and then carbon offsetting.
Get in touch to see how Alfa Energy can help your business take action.
Samuel is an experienced energy and sustainability professional with 10 years in the industry. Samuel has helped clients manage their energy requirements and implement innovative processes, software and technology to further their carbon neutrality journey, in areas ranging from smart grid and demand response, to electric vehicles, renewable energy and carbon credits. Samuel has a Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development with Forum for the Future, and a Bachelors in Environmental Science.