Carbon neutral vs net zero: Clearing up the difference

Confused about carbon neutral vs net zero? The difference is in the details. We break down which is which when it comes to reducing air emissions. 

by Paula Galbiatti Silveira

There’s quite some confusion in the air about carbon neutral vs net zero. Do they mean the same thing? Even though both are related to air emissions management – they’re not interchangeable terms. To understand the distinction between the two, we take you into the details behind what they mean. 

Climate change and clearing up carbon neutral vs net zero

Talking about emissions means, first, talking about climate change.  

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) of 1992 defines climate change in Article 1(2) as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.”  

Within that, emissions, according to Article 1(4) of the UNFCCC, are defined as “the release of greenhouse gases (GHG) and/or their precursors into the atmosphere over a specified area and period of time.” 

To protect the climate and diminish emissions, countries agreed in the Paris Agreement to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” (Article 2(1) (a)). To achieve that, countries aim to (among others) achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of GHGs by mid-century.  

But what does this balance mean? Step one in understanding which term to use is identifying which kind of GHGs emissions you need to refer to. 

Emissions are more than carbon gases

Here, to understand the difference between carbon neutral vs net zero, we need to grasp exactly what GHGs are, as they are not only carbon gases (mainly CO2).  

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), GHGs are  

“those gaseous constituents of the atmosphere, both natural and anthropogenic [or of human origin], that absorb and emit radiation at specific wavelengths within the spectrum of terrestrial radiation emitted by the Earth’s surface, the atmosphere itself and by clouds. This property causes the greenhouse effect.” 

According to the IPCC, the primary GHGs are: 

  • Water vapour (H2O) 
  • carbon dioxide (CO2) 
  • nitrous oxide (N2O) 
  • methane (CH4)  
  • ozone (O3) 

Besides, there are many GHGs entirely human-made, including halocarbons and other chlorine- and bromine-containing substances, regulated under the Montreal Protocol. Also, the Kyoto Protocol deals with the GHGs sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). 

As a result, there are multiple terms to describe the objectives to reduce the different types of gases. 

Carbon neutral vs net zero … vs other terms

Looking at these various defining factors, we can pinpoint several different terms related to emission reduction goals – carbon neutral vs net zero, of course, but more than that. Under the IPCC are the following: 

Climate neutrality: “This term refers to the concept of a state in which human activities result in no net effect on the climate system. Achieving such a state would require balancing of residual emissions with emission (carbon dioxide) removal as well as accounting for regional or local biogeophysical effects of human activities that, for example, affect surface albedo or local climate.”  

Decarbonization: “This is the process by which countries, individuals or other entities aim to achieve zero fossil carbon existence. Typically refers to a reduction of the carbon emissions associated with electricity, industry and transport.” 

Net negative emissions: “A situation is achieved when, as result of human activities, more GHGs are removed from the atmosphere than are emitted into it. Where multiple GHGs are involved, the quantification of negative emissions depends on the climate metric chosen to compare emissions of different gases. These metrics include global warming potential, global temperature change potential, and others, as well as the chosen time horizon.” 

Net zero emissions: “Net zero emissions is when anthropogenic – or of human origin – emissions of GHGs to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period. Like with net negative emissions, where multiple GHGs are involved, net zero emissions is quantified differently depending on the type of gas emissions being compared.” 

Net zero CO2 emissions or carbon neutrality: “Different from net zero emissions, net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are achieved when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period. This term can also be referred to as carbon neutrality.” 

Your final answer on carbon neutral vs net zero

Any of the terms above are correct, in the right circumstances. Yet when it comes to deciphering if your company means carbon neutral vs net zero, the answer simply depends on which gases you’re counting in your emissions accounting. While carbon neutral focuses on CO2, net zero includes all types of GHG emissions. But looking at the larger picture, carbon neutrality is one part of our net-zero journey which we can all work on together. 


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