The Difference between Carbon Neutral and Net Zero

Published by Georgia Crump on

Understanding climate terminology

More and more countries, companies and individuals are making pledges to be ‘carbon neutral’, ‘net zero’ or even ‘climate positive’. This is great news for the environment, but what do these terms actually mean? 

Although businesses seem to use them interchangeably, there are actually some important differences between them. Whether you’re looking to take climate action for your company, or just trying to make sense of climate change terminology, it’s important to understand the distinctions between them. 

Carbon neutral vs Net Zero… Why does the difference matter? 

You may be thinking: it’s just two words, how much does the difference really matter? But if we’re going to beat climate change it’s vital that we’re all on the same page about the terminology we use. This is especially important if you want to avoid being accused of greenwashing. Greenwashing is shorthand for marketing yourself as environmentally friendly when you have no tangible actions to back it up. Companies are often accused of greenwashing if they have no evidence of taking climate action when they claim to be eco-friendly, green, or sustainable. 

Understanding climate terminology will help you spot when a company is actually doing what it claims and call out greenwashing. So now let’s get on to the differences between carbon neutral and net zero. 

Defining Carbon Neutral and Net Zero

Carbon Neutral means paying to offset your carbon emissions so that you offset as much carbon as you emit, without needing to make any reductions to your emissions. 

Net Zero means being able to prove that you have eliminated all carbon emissions that can be avoided, using the latest climate science. You must then remove any remaining unavoidable emissions through carbon removal projects. 

The differences between Carbon Neutral and Net Zero

Carbon NeutralNet Zero
Types of OffsetsAny carbon reduction scheme that involves removing CO2 from the atmosphere or preventing future emissions (e.g. renewable energy)Projects must actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere, for example carbon capture technology. 
How easy is it to achieve?It is very easy to become carbon neutral, as all you need to do is offset your emissions by purchasing carbon credits, either directly or through a service like Treepoints.Net Zero is harder to achieve than carbon neutral as it requires a thorough examination of all your direct and indirect emissions, and then offsetting specifically with carbon removal projects. This is why many companies are setting targets for net zero emissions by 2050, as it is not something that can be achieved overnight. 
Does tree planting contribute towards this? At Treepoints, we don’t include tree planting in carbon offsetting. Although trees are great for the planet, it is hard to quantify exactly how much CO2 is absorbed, particularly when the trees are young. However, the sustainable development and other environmental benefits of tree planting (providing jobs, replenishing soil) means that it is still an important part of looking after our planet. Tree planting can be used to contribute to net zero targets only if it is part of a certified ‘Matured Reforestation’ project. This means that the trees are at least 10 years old. This is because trees are not mature enough to sequester carbon from the atmosphere until this point. 
CostCarbon neutral projects such as renewable energy and biomass typically cost less than £10 per tonne of CO2 removed. Net Zero projects are more expensive because the technology is still being developed, costing between £10-£100 per tonne of CO2 removed. 
Emissions reduction requirementTo be carbon neutral, there is no requirement that you reduce your emissions, only that you offset the entirety of your CO2 output. Net Zero requires you to reduce and decarbonise your emissions as much as possible. Only ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ emissions should be offset, and you will need strong evidence of why these cannot be reduced. 
Emissions Scopes (see below for definitions)Carbon Neutral means accounting for scope 1 and 2 emissions Net Zero covers scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. This means  you have to include indirect emissions from the supply chain as well as direct emissions. 
SpecificityYou can choose to have certain products or services that are carbon neutral without needing to make all of them carbon neutral. Net Zero has to cover the whole organisation, and can’t be applied to just a part of it. 
CertificationThe international standard for Carbon Neutrality is the PAS 2060, which outlines the criteria for carbon neutral.  Net Zero criteria and certification is currently being developed by the Science Based Targets Initiative in preparation for COP26. 
Time frameShort term. Anyone can be carbon neutral today, by offsetting their emissions. Long term. Net Zero is a long term climate solution which involves setting targets and big institutional changes to implement. 

Understanding Emissions Scopes

There are three different emissions scopes: scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. 

Scope 1: All direct emissions from the activities of an organisation, for example emissions from their delivery vehicles. 

Scope 2: Indirect emissions from electricity purchased and used by the organisation. 

Scope 3: All other indirect emissions from activities of the organisation, occurring from sources they do not own or control. 

A few other key climate terms 

Before we take a deeper dive into carbon neutral vs net zero, let’s quickly clarify a few other common climate terms to avoid confusion. 

Zero carbon: no carbon emissions are being produced from a product/service.

Carbon negative: Reducing your carbon footprint through offsetting by more than the total emissions output. In simple terms, you take out more than you put in. 

Climate positive: Used interchangeably with carbon negative. Once you have offset all your emissions, any further climate action (offsetting and planting trees) makes you climate positive.

Now that we understand these terms, let’s look at untangling carbon neutral and net zero. 

Understanding Carbon Neutral

Carbon Neutral is a great way to start taking responsibility for your impact on the environment, whether you’re an international company or a single individual. 

There is an internationally recognised standard for carbon neutrality: PAS 2060. The steps for this are:

  1. Measuring your emissions (this can be done with a footprint calculator)
  2. Purchase carbon credits equivalent to your total emissions.

It’s virtually impossible at present to generate zero carbon emissions, as emissions come from practically every aspect of modern life. Therefore, offsetting is the only viable way to make your net emissions output zero (although this is not the same as Net Zero, as we’ll look at below). 

How to reach Carbon Neutral?

You can reach carbon neutrality through services like Treepoints, who will purchase carbon offset credits on your behalf. This is often cheaper than purchasing credits on your own, as Treepoints will buy credits in bulk at a price closer to the original wholesale. 

At Treepoints we donate to a portfolio of projects including a wind energy project in China and a hydroelectric power plant in Honduras. These prevent future CO2 emissions by generating renewable energy, reducing the need for fossil fuels. We only donate to projects that have been independently verified by internationally recognised organisations including the Gold Standard and the Verified Carbon Standard. 

It is generally accepted that carbon neutrality is a great first step for companies and individuals starting their sustainability journey. Once you have achieved carbon neutrality, you may want to start thinking about making a plan to work towards Net Zero. 

Understanding Net Zero

Over the next decade, Net Zero is what we all need to be working towards in order to meet the 1.5°C limit target set by the Paris Agreement. 

As of yet, there is no official standard for Net Zero, however the Science Based Targets Initiative has established a working definition that is being refined ready for COP26. According to this working definition, Net Zero means that an organisation has committed to pursuing ambitious science-based carbon reduction targets in line with the 1.5°C limit. This needs to take account scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, including direct and indirect emissions from the whole supply chain. Only ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ emissions can be offset, and only using carbon removal. 

Carbon removal technology

As mentioned, Net Zero emissions reduction should only be achieved through carbon removal. This refers specifically to projects that remove CO2 that is already in the atmosphere, as opposed to preventing future emissions. Carbon removal includes nature-based solutions and technology solutions.   

Nature-Based Solutions

Mangroves in Queensland Australia. Certified Mangrove areas qualify as a nature-based carbon removal solution.

Nature-based solutions include reforestation and afforestation, which is planting trees. However, carbon credits purchased from these nature-based projects are only valid if the forests have matured for more than 10 years. This is because young trees cannot absorb CO2 effectively from the atmosphere. There are some verification programmes available for these types of offsets such as the Woodland Carbon Code – however this standard cannot be used to offset commercial emissions, because the UK government already counts it towards the UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. For this reason, at present this carbon removal is hard to use for meeting Net Zero targets. 

Other nature-based solutions include:

Blue carbon – Expanding ocean ecosystems that absorb CO2. This includes mangroves, seagrass meadows and saltmarshes.

Soil Carbon Sequestration – Increasing via agricultural practices the amount of CO2 taken out of the atmosphere by soil

Biochar – Growing plants which absorb CO2, then heating them in the absence of oxygen to form charcoal. This can then be mixed into soil as a way of storing carbon in the ground.

Technology Solutions

Technology solutions mean projects that remove CO2 from the atmosphere using sophisticated carbon capture methods. This includes Direct Air Capture (DAC) and Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

Direct Air Capture – Using chemical reactions to take CO2 out of the air. Once the CO2 is captured, it must be stored, either by locking it in stable rock compounds or pumping it into rocks underground. 

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – Burning plant biomass to generate energy and trapping the CO2 released. Burning biomass is a carbon neutral process because the same amount of CO2 is released in burning as the amount taken in by the plants growing. So if you capture the carbon released, the whole process becomes carbon negative.

This technology for both of these is still very new and is not yet available on a global scale. As a result, offset credits from these projects remain expensive. Buying these credits is more akin to an investment in green technology. 

What about the other greenhouse gases? 

Carbon Neutral and Net Zero carbon emissions are significant climate goals that greatly help fight climate change. However it’s worth remembering that there are other polluting greenhouse gas emissions apart from CO2 that need to be addressed. These include methane, nitrous oxide, and some particularly nasty substances called hydrofluorocarbons. As a planet, we need to be working to reduce these emissions too. However, at this time CO2 is the dominant greenhouse gas, accounting for roughly 76% of total man-made greenhouse gas emissions. This is why as a planet we’re focused on reducing carbon emissions in particular. 

How to choose your climate target?

If you are just starting out on your sustainability journey, you will want to start with low carbon or carbon neutral targets. This is something that Treepoints can help you achieve easily. Indeed, why stop at carbon neutral? We always encourage companies and individuals to offset more than they emit. This way, you can actively contribute to climate positive action.

Once you have reached carbon neutral, you might want to think about setting longer term net-zero targets. This will mean fully reducing your emissions at every level of the supply chain, and then offsetting the remaining ‘hard-to-reduce’ emissions with carbon removal. 

Aiming for Net-Zero…?

In order to meet our 1.5°C targets, climate experts agree unanimously that all countries and organisations will need to meet Net Zero. Although at present Treepoints can only help you achieve Carbon Neutral, and not Net Zero, we hope to be able to offer this in the future, to continue helping businesses and individuals take positive climate action. 

So now you hopefully have a better understanding of the difference between carbon neutral and net zero. And you’ll be able to spot when organisations are using the terms correctly and appreciate the scale of the climate action. 

Interested in reaching Carbon Neutral today?

Head over to Treepoints for more information and to set up your account. Treepoints can help you and your business start offsetting to reach Carbon Neutral today.

Read more:

The role of carbon offsetting in the race to net zero emissions