Carbon Neutral vs Net Zero

What is the difference in meaning between Carbon Neutral vs Net Zero? Both terms Carbon Neutral and Net Zero Emissions (notice the word ‘emissions’ is often tacked on to Net Zero) are banded about on TV and in the news, but really, what’s the difference between the two?

We tried to work it out and the difference is small but significant. Let’s explore the philosophical debate between their true meanings.


Being Carbon Neutral means ensuring any actions we take do not contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere than was present before we started. This could mean our actions produce zero CO2 emissions, or any emissions produced are offset with initiatives that take carbon from the atmosphere.

Net Zero on the other hand is a very transactional term that fits in with capitalist ideas of consumption and being able to make up for bad things we’ve done. Thinking in the financial terms gross and net, we’re trying to balance the carbon we add – our gross number – with the carbon we take away from the atmosphere – our net number.

Net Zero

Net Zero only cares about the end result being zero and balancing out. As a simple example, thinking in gross and net, let’s pretend owns and operates a network of mobile phone masts. Let’s see how operating those masts using coal fired power stations for let’s say 15million customers, we could offset all of the carbon it takes to provide our service and be net zero.

Providing mobile phone service for 15million customers would produce about 250,500,000 million tonnes of CO2, so we’d need to plant  10,020,000 million trees to absorb all of that CO2 from the atmosphere. If we added more customers, we’d need to plant more trees to keep up with that usage. Doing this would make our phone mast’s net contribution to CO2 emissions net zero. We’re still producing emissions, but those emissions are being offset by planting trees that pull the carbon back from the atmosphere.

Transaction View

This is a very transactional point of view which tells us we can keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere just as we’ve been doing and suffer zero consequences. But it’s not enough to simply ‘make up for’ our emissions. Pumping a million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, planting trees to balance that won’t pay off for a long time. The immediate effect could be a rapid acidification of the ocean which will have a more immediate impact on planetary life.

Looking at things this way doesn’t make a positive impact in addressing our climate crisis. By its own definition, being net zero through balancing our gross emissions does nothing at all, so how can we make a positive impact?

Carbon Neutral

Although carbon neutral can mean the exact same thing as net zero, we look at carbon neutral as being both things that seek to reduce carbon emissions from the outset, and things that balance their emissions after they’re produced.

Aim for Carbon Neutral if you want your impact to be minimal from the outset.

Using the same example of mobile phone masts from above, how about we install solar panels on or near our masts where possible and pay for renewable energy where this is not possible. We’d also have a renewable energy supplier to provide any extra energy we needed on an ad hoc basis.

This plan would make our mobile phone mast network carbon neutral by design.

Balanced Approach

Put more simply, being Carbon Neutral means ensuring any actions we take do not contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere than was present before we started. This could mean our actions produce minimal CO2 emissions, and/or any emissions produced are offset with initiatives that take carbon from the atmosphere.

When we reference carbon neutrality, we don’t always mention that it is measured over a period of time, but it’s important for organisations and projects that become carbon neutral specify a time frame.

How To Become Carbon Neutral For Organisations

Becoming carbon neutral requires organisations to measure their CO2 emissions, understanding where and how much CO2 they are producing. Once the source of CO2 in a company or project has been identified, they can begin to reduce and eliminate CO2 output. This could be by getting power from renewable energy rather than oil, gas or coal.

Another part of going carbon neutral can include neutralising carbon emitted which is an approach some Carbon Neutral buildings take. For example, you might grab carbon as it comes out of a chimney, then bury it underground. The carbon is still produced, but is now inert and can’t get into the atmosphere.

The offsetting side of carbon neutrality is the part we probably associate the most with the process. Planting trees will be the first thing that comes to mind. Until organisations can cut off emissions at the source, they’ll need to invest in projects that pull carbon from the atmosphere.

Aiming for an entirely carbon neutral operation, we could carry this forward to other parts of a mobile phone network business.

Although Carbon Neutral and Net Zero amount to the same thing, there is a difference in philosophy between the two. One seeks to take the best possible path from the outset, having the least impact – the other only cares that whatever harm that is done is balanced.

Can you now tell which is which?

Next Logical Step

After pursuing carbon neutrality and becoming a net zero emissions organisation, the next step is to become Carbon Negative just like Microsoft aim to do by 2030 and actively remove carbon from the atmosphere beyond what is introduced. Alexanne Heurtier has a detailed explanation of the terms Carbon Neutral and Net Zero emissions to help us all get the terminology right.