A plant of some kind releases pollution into the atmosphere, this is not carbon neutral production.
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Emissions terminology 101

Net-Zero, Carbon Neutral, and Zero Emissions: What’s the Difference?

Kailey Luzbetak
/
November 30, 2023

While a growing number of Americans are aware of climate change and rightfully worried about its impacts, understanding emissions terminology can be very difficult! Even though a warming planet impacts everyone, most of us are not formally trained as climate scientists. Plus, words like ‘carbon neutral’ are everywhere – and often accompanied by other confusing and vague environmental language, like ‘green’ or ‘natural.’

It’s important for average Americans to understand what emissions-related terms mean for a number of reasons. First, it helps us to be better consumers of news media, giving us the tools to understand exactly what is happening with our climate and what needs to be done to mitigate the impacts. According to scientists, 2023 is currently on track to be the hottest year in recorded human history. Clearly, we are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, and knowing how to interpret the information we receive about climate change is very important.

On top of that, understanding the terminology associated with climate change also helps us become more informed energy consumers. Most Americans don’t just want to know about climate change – they want to help solve the problem, too. This means understanding the sometimes confusing language associated with climate change in order to help reduce our own emissions.

Net-zero emissions, zero emissions, and carbon neutrality

Climate change is driven most centrally by greenhouse gas emissions. When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas for energy, we release large amounts of greenhouse gasses – such as carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4) into the atmosphere. These excess gasses act like a thick blanket, trapping heat from the sun and causing the planet to warm up – just like a greenhouse. Crucially, the greenhouse effect helps keep our planet habitable and is essential for supporting life on Earth. But too much carbon dioxide (or any greenhouse gas, for that matter) released into the atmosphere can disrupt the Earth’s natural equilibrium, causing planetary warming.

To stop runaway climate change, then, we must reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit into the atmosphere. That’s where our many carbon-related terms come in. But what do they all mean, anyway?

Carbon Neutral

Carbon neutral is often used to describe a product, company, individual, or even government. The notion of carbon neutrality is simple: since some degree of carbon emissions is currently almost inevitable – because of the way our infrastructure is set up and how we have historically produced, well, everything – institutions can strive to offset their carbon emissions. Carbon offsets are ways to compensate for the carbon emissions bound up in production or operation by investing in projects that reduce or remove an equivalent amount of emissions from the atmosphere.

There are a number of ways that companies or governments will try to do this. Some programs involve actually capturing and storing carbon dioxide underground. Others involve investing in ‘carbon sinks’ such as forests. This is when money goes toward reforestation efforts, given that trees naturally capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While there are many different carbon offset programs, they all involve balancing out the amount of carbon emitted.

This sounds like a great idea for reducing climate impacts, in theory. In practice, however, it is a bit more complicated. The science around offsetting is unsettled, in part because it is very complex. For example, some carbon capture will absolutely be necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. But the process of capturing carbon itself requires energy, and on top of that, there is a finite amount of space to store carbon underground. To muddy the water further, the carbon offsets industry is mostly unregulated, so even the phrase “carbon offset” can mean many different things in different contexts, making it hard to be sure just how much of a positive environmental impact these programs make.

Perhaps most importantly though, scientists are unanimous: in the long term, emissions must be reduced to effectively fight climate change – there’s no way around it. Carbon neutrality, on the other hand, lets institutions lower their climate impact on paper but does not require them to commit to any actual lowered emissions.

Net-zero

Net-zero emissions is typically used interchangeably with the phrase carbon neutral. Net-zero emissions implies that the amount of greenhouse gasses that an individual, company, or state emits is balanced with an equivalent amount of emissions removed from the atmosphere. However, the definition of net-zero emissions is technically more expansive than carbon neutrality because it includes other greenhouse gasses beyond carbon dioxide in its equation. This is a good thing – methane (CH4), for example, is much more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere and is the second leading contributor to warming after carbon dioxide. Regardless, it still requires institutions to make no commitments to actual emissions reductions, which is why experts argue that it alone will not solve our climate problems alone.

While neither carbon neutral nor net-zero emissions require emissions reductions, some institutions will both reduce their emissions and offset what remains. But this varies based on the company or government, and the blanket terms don’t give us much insight into what exactly they are doing.

Zero Emissions

Zero emissions, on the other hand, implies that there were zero carbon emissions created in the process of producing a good/service. This is an ideal vision for sustainable life on Earth and would dramatically reduce the greenhouse effect, preventing our planet from rapidly warming. Unfortunately, however, this is a very difficult goal for most institutions. The vast majority of the things we do cause some kind of environmental impact somewhere along the production or supply chain.

The bottom line is that both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and offsetting them through various projects are important for mitigating the impact of climate change, according to scientists. All steps are good steps, but some are more effective than others. And while these labels can give us some information – carbon neutrality is much better than no attention paid to carbon emissions whatsoever, for example – they can’t tell us everything.

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