What is the difference in meaning between Carbon Neutral and 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, but really, there’s no difference. Both Carbon Neutral and Net Zero amount to the same thing practically, but 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 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.
As a simple example, balancing emissions thinking in gross and net, let’s pretend Greenermobiles.com 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.
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. 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?
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.
If you want your impact to be minimal from the outset rather than feeling guilty and throwing wads of cash at planting thousands of trees to make yourself feel better and of course, look better to the general public, aim to be carbon neutral.
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.
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?