Carbon Neutrality vs Net Zero

The terms “carbon neutrality” and “net zero” are gaining serious traction under mounting pressures from governmental bodies and wider society. We are also under pressure to make changes from our planet itself; the most recent IPCC report demonstrated the environmental effects that a rise in temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius would make, including unusual and dangerous weather patterns, such as droughts, as well as rising sea levels and flooding.

The urgency to reduce the environmental damage from emissions of green-house gases (GHGs) like CO2e is constantly rising and, as such, it is important to understand what these terms actually mean.  

The two phrases are used by governments, large corporations, businesses and wider society to set sustainability goals, targets and aspirations. They are often used interchangeably; however, they are actually different methods of approaching sustainability.  

Both describe states where GHGs have been brought under control. How and to what extent this is achieved, however, is where they differ. In short, carbon neutrality can be achieved simply by offsetting all emissions, whereas net zero requires absolute reductions in these emissions alongside offsetting of everything that cannot be reduced. In other words, if a business is carbon neutral, that is not to say that they have achieved net zero.  

Carbon Considerations and the Circular EconomyCarbon Considerations and the Circular Economy

What is Carbon Offsetting?  

Carbon offsetting is the process of compensating for carbon emissions resulting from business activities by removing corresponding amounts of CO2e from the atmosphere.  

Offsetting is often achieved through carbon sinks (any environment that removes more carbon than it produces) such as forests. Companies can invest in carbon offsetting which allows for a reduction in GHG emissions and an increase in carbon storage, such as land restoration and planting trees.  

By offsetting their carbon emissions, companies can reduce their overall environmental impact without necessarily decreasing how much carbon they produce. This allows organisations to largely maintain their business functions and structure whilst improving their environmental impact.  


What is Carbon Neutrality?

Carbon neutrality simply means having a balance between how much carbon is produced and how much carbon is removed from the environment by an organisation, governmental body, country or individual.  

Carbon neutrality can be thought of as trying to balance a pair of kitchen scales; whilst you are increasing the weight on one side of the scales (how much carbon is removed from the environment), the other side remains unchanged. In other words, a company does not have to reduce its carbon emissions – only cancel them out – to become carbon neutral.  


What is Net Zero?  

In 2021, Science Based Targets (SBTi) released a standard for achieving net zero, which states “emissions reductions are key to the transition to global net zero.” This standard denotes exactly how much emissions must be reduced by and how much can be offset to achieve net zero. Specifically, the standard requires emissions (across scopes 1, 2, and 3) to be reduced by at least 90% vs the start year.  

This goal, therefore, requires extensive changes to business functions and structure. However net zero is often the preferred option by governmental bodies and organisations for a more effective and sustainable approach to carbon reduction.  


So, which is best?  

Whilst both methods are aiming for the same thing – controlling climate change by managing GHG emissions – the manner in which they aim to achieve this goal is fundamentally different and aiming for carbon neutrality is not the same as aiming to become net zero.  

A key criticism of carbon neutrality is its reliance on carbon offsetting, which has many shortfalls. Chief among them is it is not an immediate process: a newly planted tree can take up to 20 years to capture the amount of CO2e that an offsetting scheme promises. This is largely due to the fact that while a typical tree can sequester roughly 21 kg of CO2e each year, this is only once it is fully grown – not when it is a sapling.  

In reality, carbon offsetting will take years to have the required impact. Moreover, if we continue to emit 40 billion tonnes of CO2e annually, we would need to plant 40 billion trees each year just to break even. We simply do not have the time, space, or money for this to be practical.  

This leads us to the crux of the matter: we must significantly reduce our emissions if we are to achieve a lasting balance in our GHG emissions. Therefore, only net zero provides a roadmap to true sustainability that requires a lasting shift from business as usual. As Green Peace puts it: “planting trees can’t replace slashing carbon emissions.”  

Is your business looking to become more sustainable? Aiming for net zero may seem like a daunting task but it is the best option available for a viable future for our planet. Guidance and advice are available to aid businesses with reducing their carbon emissions and becoming more environmentally friendly. Head to the SBTi website for more information on the net zero standard or find out more about our sustainable IT solutions to reduce the impact of your technology on the environment.