What does it mean to become Carbon Neutral?
Understanding carbon neutrality and the path to a global zero carbon recovery.
Why are we on this journey to become carbon neutral?
You might hear the term ‘carbon neutral’ from brands, organisations, companies, politicians. But what does becoming carbon neutral actually mean? Our planet has a deadline; 2050. Whilst this may only be a legal time limit to when all countries and its corporations must become carbon neutral, it highlights the clear emergency which we find ourselves in today. The race to net zero is no marketing stunt. The United Nations is calling for an urgent “global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero carbon recovery”.
Carbon Tracker shows us that we currently emit around 42 gigatons of CO2 per year. However, our safety limit to keep below limit 2 degrees celcius of warming is 1,100 gigatons of CO2. Therefore, we only have 26 years of emissions left at this current rate before the whole world needs to become carbon neutral. This is alarming because emisions have been steadily increasing year on year. Essentially, we’re not reducing emissions at the pace that is necessary to dampen cliamte change.
So, what can you do as an individual, organisation or nation to become carbon neutral? Why are we creating new social contracts? All these questions and more are central to the survivability of planet Earth.
What does ‘carbon neutral’ actually mean?
When you become ‘carbon neutral’, it means that your organisation’s entire operations don’t add any carbon to the atmosphere. To become carbon neutral, most organisations offset their emissions by investing in projects that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Essentially, you are compensating for your emissions. Whilst this does not mean that you no longer create carbon emissions, by counteracting this you neutralise your impact on the environment. Here’s an example to better explain this. OVO Energy gives a fantastic thought experiment to help us better understand carbon neutrality. Imagine the world is a bathtub of water and all 7.8 billion of us sit in it. As we live our lives, each of us slowly fills the bathtub with our own little hosepipes. However, it’s starting to feel like it’s in danger of overflowing. So, the water is like the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions that fill the atmosphere. The hosepipes we hold is what we’re each responsible for emitting; this is also known as our carbon ‘footprint’. From energy and transport, to land use and water, scientists have shown that warming the planet by as little as 1.5 degrees celsius will already create irreversible damage.
Becoming carbon neutral
Becoming ‘carbon negative’ effectively means that you are over-compensating your carbon emissions. To become carbon negative, you invest into projects that absorb or reduce more carbon from the atmosphere than the amount you put into it. Your impact favours the environment, meaning you are actively doing something to better the climate.
So what’s all this talk about ‘net zero’? Firstly, zero carbon means that you are not emitting any carbon at all. For example, if your house operates on renewable energy, such as solar panels, you don’t rely on fossil fuels for heating or electricity. However, for businesses it can be more difficult to not emit carbon at all. Whilst some companies manage to become carbon neutral in manufacturing their products, others struggle to create a value/supply chain that does not emit at all.
What does it mean when a company talks about being carbon neutral?
Claiming to be carbon neutral means that the company tries to achieve carbon neutrality by reducing its own emissions, offsetting its remaining emissions, or both, using renewable energy sources, installing energy-efficient technologies, and making other changes to their operations.
The most common way for companies to offset their remaining emissions is by buying carbon credits from organizations that have reduced greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. They can invest in renewable energy, purchase carbon credits, or plant trees to offset their emissions.
Difference between Carbon neutral and Net-zero
For example, if your product is delivered from the manufacturing centre to the point of sale, it’s likely you operate with C02 emitting combustion engine vehicles, such as trucks or ships. For this reason when organisations, businesses or nations commit to becoming ‘net zero’, it means they are offsetting all of the emissions they can’t reduce. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, this must be in line with science-backed recommendations supported by, for example, the Science Based Targets initiative. Whatever carbon they are still emitting, must be offset into projects that ideally use certified carbon credits.
Ultimately, understanding the concept of carbon neutrality will help you on your personal or organisational path to our global zero carbon recovery. Make climate action your focus to join the race to resilience and a net zero future.
About the author
This article was written by Tiago Fachada, CTO of Ecofye and originally it was published here.