Net Zero or Carbon Neutral: What’s the difference?

As increasing numbers of businesses are ramping up their sustainability ambition and building climate targets into their strategy, the language used to communicate this ambition and associated milestones is increasingly under scrutiny. Stakeholders require consistent and clear language to accurately determine the difference between genuine, sincere and achievable targets, and spurious claims that indicate a lack of understanding at best, or cynical greenwashing at worst.

Two terms that are often thrown around with reckless abandon, seemingly interchangeably, are ‘net zero’ and ‘carbon neutral’. Whilst the two are thematically linked, there are certain key differences: Net zero requires all emissions to be accounted for (including scope 3) and reduced along a pathway tracking to a target set no later than 2050. The residual unavoidable emissions (for most industries no more than 10%) must be offset using carbon reducing methods such as tree planting.

‘Carbon neutrality’ only requires coverage of scope 1 and 2 emissions, and a footprint can be offset using either carbon reducing or carbon avoiding offsets. Whilst reduction of emissions is encouraged, there is no requirement to set timeframes or achieve performance targets.

So, does this mean that carbon neutrality is always a worthless claim that should be viewed with suspicion? Not necessarily. Whilst certainly not a solution for climate change when viewed in isolation, carbon neutrality can offer a good starting point for organisations who want to start ‘eating the elephant’ of net zero whilst communicating their intentions to stakeholders and investing in valuable climate-friendly offset projects.

Net zero must be considered as the ultimate destination but embarking on this journey can be a daunting project and one that requires a large amount strategic planning. No organisation is an island, and in the modern world of hugely complex interlinked supply chains, true net zero requires cooperation and participation throughout the value chain and will only be achieved through communication and collaboration and progressed with climate positive legislation.

In our experience, one of the main barriers to action on climate, especially for small businesses, is simply not knowing where to start. When approached as part of a holistic sustainability strategy, Carbon neutrality can provide a good first step on the net zero journey and can help get the building blocks in place required to ‘future proof’ for net zero.

At future leap we are experts in helping organisations on all elements of their net-zero journey, when it comes to carbon neutrality, we would always provide the following advice:

  • Align your process to PAS2060, following the principles of measure, reduce, offset, communicate.
  • The starting point for both net zero and carbon neutrality is a robust footprint that aligns with the greenhouse gas protocol and includes as much of scope 3 as is practical (we suggest water, waste, employee travel and commuting at a minimum). You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Your footprint can (and should) be expanded to include supply chain emissions when practical to do so.
  • Produce or commission a carbon reduction plan that covers the operational, technological, behavioural, and potentially systemic changes required to cut emissions. Focus on this part. Complete the actions and review it regularly. This is absolutely key for meaningful action on climate.
  • Make sure that achieving carbon neutrality is framed as a stepping stone on the net-zero journey and not an end in itself. Use it as a learning process and a jumping-off point for more ambitious targets. Be clear and transparent about where you are and what you hope to achieve.

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The Net Zero response to the climate emergency faces the fact that reducing emissions is not enough to create the impact we need. Carbon emissions must stop in order for us to reduce the current rate of global warming. Net Zero is the best way that we can tackle climate change and so every industry and every country must work together to reduce the carbon we produce. Through supporting one another, sharing knowledge and collaboration we can harbour real and lasting change.

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