What’s The Difference Between Carbon Neutral And Becoming Net Zero?

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The realities of climate change have brought a new set of environmental terms and vocabulary into our lives and workplaces.

Some of these terms, such as ‘sustainability’, ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ are all recognisable, but are often wrongly seen as interchangeable and are commonly misused.

As we move towards the ultimate goal of a global circular economy, there needs to be a greater understanding of these terms in order to make the significant and substantial changes required to protect our environment for the future.

What is carbon neutral?

Although both ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ refer to actions needed to fight climate change, they have different meanings.

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) are the greatest known threats to our environment. They trap heat in the atmosphere, leading to global warming.

In our global efforts to combat climate change, there has been a strong focus on reducing emissions of CO2, the worst offender when it comes to greenhouse gases and rising temperatures.

⏰Key point: We often hear of the need to reduce our own carbon footprint. In business, the move towards becoming ‘carbon neutral’ is along the same lines – focusing activities on reducing CO2 emissions, but not other greenhouse gases.

How do we become carbon neutral?

A business’s strategy towards becoming carbon neutral usually covers a defined area of operations or processes.

It involves finding ways to reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions altogether, or removing an equal amount of CO2 to the amount being released, thus cancelling out the harm done to the environment

This requires an innovative, science-based sustainability strategy.

This balancing of carbon emissions is termed carbon offsetting. It has hit the headlines recently because of the UK government’s focus on carbon capture and storage technologies in its environmental strategy.

But simpler solutions can be found by businesses to balance their carbon emissions, such as planting new trees or investing in renewable energy.

⏰Key point: According to IEMA, individuals and organisations should all be focusing on reducing or eliminating carbon emissions from their activities.

The IEMA’s GHG Management Hierarchy, which sets the standard on how to tackle emissions, includes an option to compensate for emissions where they are ‘unavoidable’.

However, the IEMA has also stated that such carbon capture and storage measures should not be the first step to finding a solution. The preference is reduction or elimination.

What is net zero?

Whereas a carbon neutral strategy focuses on CO2 emissions, a net zero approach includes the aim of reducing or removing all greenhouse gas emissions from business activities.

Net zero is the UK government’s target for 2050, meaning all businesses are under an obligation, compounded by legislation and regulations, to help achieve this goal. Therefore, merely having a carbon neutral strategy is not enough – all businesses must strive for net zero to survive in the modern economy.

But unlike a carbon neutral approach, there is no alternative approach to reduction or elimination when it comes to achieving net zero.

In its formal definition of net zero in 2021, the Science Based Targets initiative’s Corporate Net-Zero Standard stated that compensation is not allowed under the new standard.

⏰Key point: So although carbon neutrality means that you can compensate for your emissions through actions such as carbon offsetting, net-zero requires you to get rid of your emissions through greater efficiency, renewables, or other means of reduction or elimination.

How do we achieve net zero?

To achieve net zero, a business needs to analyse all processes and resources throughout its supply chain – or throughout the life cycle of a product or service.

Removing all greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, from all stages of all operations is an enormous task for a business.

The investigation, monitoring and reporting stages, as well as the research, innovation  and design stages which may be employed later on to facilitate change, can all be costly and time-consuming.

Not an ideal prospect for a business trying to make a profit, it would seem.

But the efforts will ultimately be worthwhile,

Any streamlining of processes and efficient use of resources, combined with a forward-thinking approach and a motivation to reduce environmental impact, will benefit the business in terms of reputation and competitiveness, as well as compliance with laws and regulations.

Watch your language

When building a sustainability strategy and securing buy-in from stakeholders, it is essential that there is no confusion about what you are trying to achieve. This includes using environmental terms such as ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ correctly.

To help with this, green skills training is available through TSW Training on short and longer IEMA courses for workers at all levels, some of which lead to accredited qualifications such as IEMA practitioner.

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Matthew Channell
Matthew is TSW Training’s Commercial Director. He writes about performance focussed learning, leadership, and management approaches that have real-world, sustainable impact.
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