The Difference Between Carbon Neutral, Net Zero, and Climate Positive

There are a lot of terms used to describe a company or individual’s impact on the environment. Some of these terms represent corporate or political goals in the fight against climate change.

But some of the phrases that are used in governmental and media statements are incredibly similar. The three that are most often confused are carbon neutral, net zero, and climate positive.

There’s a distinct difference between these terms, however. Let’s take a deep dive into these three phrases, and what they mean in terms of environmental goals.

Climate Positive

Of the three phrases, this one is the most distinct. Climate positive is expressing something more than a neutral balance in the environment; it’s talking about a change for the better. By removing and offsetting emissions in excess of what one produces, climate positive entities create an environmental benefit for the planet.

Note that the phrase is climate positive, not just carbon level positive. This is a theme that will come up again with the other terms we’ll discuss. This metric takes into account all GHG emissions.

There are certain gasses and chemicals that are far more harmful to the environment in the short term than CO₂. For example, methane or nitrous oxide. In order to convert this damage into units that are interchangeable, every damaging chemical is given a CO₂e rating, also known as a carbon dioxide equivalency.

So all of these things need to be taken into account before a company earns the ‘climate positive’ label. The ultimate goal is to eliminate and offset all of the emissions mentioned in the GHG Protocol

Carbon Neutral

Note that this term is very specific to carbon emissions. The implication is that the company or individual in question has calculated their carbon footprint and offset their emissions so that the net impact to the planet is neutral.

Unlike ‘climate positive’, however, carbon neutral is only looking at CO₂. It is technically possible to be carbon neutral, but emit other kinds of harmful gasses (such as methane or nitrous oxide). Most green companies wouldn’t do this, but some might not be aware of the true definition of carbon neutral. And of course, some of the shadier companies that are only looking for a positive media spin might stretch the truth a bit.

Some carbon specific avoidance strategies include using green energy solutions such as solar power, wind power, geothermal, and the like. Carbon offset strategies include planting and protecting trees over the course of 50+ years, switching to green energy providers, and carbon sequestration. It’s always better (or at least more certain) to avoid producing carbon than it is to offset its production.

Net Zero

Net zero is a term used in two different ways: Net zero emissions and net zero carbon. The Paris Agreement refers to total emissions, not just carbon.

Net zero carbon is the same as carbon neutral; it refers only to one greenhouse gas and indicates a complete offset of carbon emissions.

But the broader use of net zero, particularly on a governmental and global scale, is referring to net zero total emissions. That means all GHG emissions have been accounted for and either eliminated or offset in some way.

Governments sometimes backtrack on the agreements they’ve made in order to save money or satisfy political and business factions in their country. Public and corporate pressure will need to be maintained in order to keep our international net zero treaties on track.

Applying Carbon Neutral, Net Zero, and Climate Positive To All Three Scopes

As mentioned in our article about Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 emissions, some companies aren’t aware of the proper way to measure their climate related goals. Other companies try to cheat the system and claim emission neutrality or even climate positivity by intentionally limiting the scope of their environmental impact study.

The indirect, or Scope 3, emissions that a company creates accounts for between half and 70% of total emissions on average. As a rule of thumb: The larger the company’s value chain, the bigger the percentage of Scope 3 emissions.

Companies who only account for their Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions should not be claiming that they’re carbon neutral, net zero, or climate positive. And they certainly shouldn’t be reaping any government grants or benefits from awards that they haven’t really earned.

This is why climate claims need to be examined under a scientific lens. It’s fairly easy to do media spin, in the hopes that a green ad campaign will attract more customers. It’s much harder to actually do the work and limit a company’s environmental impact in a meaningful way.

All three scopes mentioned in the GHG Protocol need to be addressed in order for a company or entity to say that they’re carbon neutral, net zero, or climate positive.

Key Takeaways

While everyone should be using the term that is most appropriate to their situation, total emissions are the most vital metric, rather than carbon-specific measurements. With that in mind, here are some important points to consider as far as the difference between carbon neutral, net zero, and climate positive:

  • Climate positive measures all GHG emissions and refers to a net benefit for the environment.
  • Carbon neutral measures only CO₂ emissions and refers to a net balance between emissions and offsets.
  • Net zero can refer to net zero carbon or net zero total emissions. 
  • All of these terms need to be calculated using all three GHG Protocol scopes.
  • Governments often threaten to water down provisions in their national climate laws and international climate agreements in order to appease the business sector and political allies.
  • Corporate climate action will translate to more resilient, more responsible, better performing companies that can remain profitable in a rapidly changing world.

The mid-2020’s will set the tone for climate targets over the next two decades. Companies who are leading by example and trying to reach carbon neutral, net zero, or climate positive status will be on the right side of history.

net-zero climate action climate policy carbon

Created 01/18/2023
Last modified 01/18/2023