Carbon neutral vs. Net-zero

While the two terms sounds very similar; they can mean very different things. In summary, carbon neutral means you offset your emissions by avoiding emissions yourself or paying someone to avoid emissions (not necessarily cutting your own emissions) while net-zero means that you actively reduce your own emissions to the extent that you remove more carbon from the environment than you emit. 

What is the difference?

While they sound similar, they’re in fact very different:

  • Carbon neutral - Given common usage, companies have typically said they’re “carbon neutral” if they offset their emissions with payments either to avoid a reduction in emissions or remove carbon from the atmosphere. But these are two very different things. For example, one way to avoid a reduction in emissions is to pay someone not to cut down the trees on the land they own. This is a good thing, but in effect it pays someone not to do something that would have a negative impact. It doesn’t lead to planting more trees that would have a positive impact by removing carbon.

  • Net-zero - In contrast, “net zero” means that a company actually removes as much carbon as it emits. The reason the phrase is “net zero” and not just “zero” is because there are still carbon emissions, but these are equal to carbon removal. And “carbon negative” means that a company is removing more carbon than it emits each year.

In essence, having a Net-zero goal is considered a much more difficult goal but more meaningful in terms of the positive impact it entails for the environment. Look out for this subtle difference the next time when you read about any company's sustainability goals!

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