What does “carbon neutral” mean and why does it matter?

Published by Georgia Crump on

What does carbon neutral mean and why does it matter?

Carbon neutral travel, carbon neutral beer, carbon neutral cookies – these days practically everything and anything comes with a carbon neutral label. From Amazon to Starbucks, more and more companies are announcing their carbon neutral goals. But what does carbon neutral actually mean? And crucially how does going carbon neutral help fight climate change? 

As individuals and companies we all want to do our bit to help the planet. That’s why it’s worth taking a few minutes to understand how carbon neutrality is a crucial part of slowing climate change. 

So what does it mean to be carbon neutral?

The definition of carbon neutral is not as complicated as you might think. Put simply, it means that the total greenhouse gas emissions from your lifestyle are balanced by removing emissions from the atmosphere. This is done either through directly removing carbon or preventing future emissions. When your emissions reduced equal to your emissions released, you are carbon neutral. So far, so simple. 

There are a few other phrases related to carbon neutrality that it’s worth getting your head round.

Key climate terminology

  • Net zeroNet zero and carbon neutral are basically one and the same. When we talk about net zero emissions, we mean that your emissions are balanced by reductions or offsetting so that the net amount of carbon in the atmosphere is zero. The ‘net’ here makes all the difference. This is different to zero emissions, which means an activity or product like cycling or walking that incurs no emissions. 
  • Carbon negative – As the name suggests, if you offset more carbon than you release then you will become net carbon negative. It’s true that you can reduce your carbon emissions through lifestyle changes (such as not flying). However almost every activity in our lives produces carbon emissions either directly or indirectly. To reach carbon neutral or better, carbon negative, you will need to offset the remainder of your emissions. (This is why we created Treepoints, to make it easy for individuals to become carbon neutral). 
  • Climate positive – Greenhouse gas emissions include not just carbon but also methane, nitrous oxide and others. For this reason, some people prefer the term climate positive. ‘Resource positive’ is a term used specifically by Starbucks, but one that we like a lot, which includes being carbon negative but also contributing positively in other ways. Nice. 

Carbon neutral by 2050 

Science tells us that in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change we need to limit global temperature change to 2C by mid century. In order to achieve this, we need to become carbon neutral, and fast.

President Xi Jinping
President Xi Jinping declared China’s ambitious net zero targets at the UN General Assembly in September 2020

You’ve probably heard on the news that more and more countries are pledging to become carbon neutral by 2050. Most recently, China’s President Xi Jinping declared to the surprise of everyone that China would be carbon neutral by 2060. If this happens, it will be a huge victory as China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. 

Read more: Why 2021 could be a good year for the environment

How to be carbon neutral? 

So now that we know what carbon neutral means, the next step is how can we achieve it? Everyone from the largest corporations to individuals can take actions to become carbon neutral. Although the details may vary, the basic process remains the same. First you need to calculate your emissions, then reduce them. After that, you can offset whatever emissions remain and voilà, carbon neutrality!

Calculating your emissions

When we calculate our emissions, we need to take into account emissions from all activities in our daily lives. This includes how we get around, our diets, and the energy used in our homes. This is sometimes referred to as a carbon footprint. Knowing this is the first step to carbon neutral. (This is why we’ve created the handy Treepoints emissions calculator). 

If you’re interested in seeing a breakdown of your carbon footprint, our friends at the WWF also have a brilliant calculator. However bear in mind that calculators can only give you an estimate of your emissions. To be safe, it is always better to assume your footprint is larger. That way when it comes to offsetting you can be sure to have covered all your emissions.

How to calculate your carbon footprint | beagreencommuter | Carbon  footprint calculator, Carbon footprint, Footprint poster
Your carbon footprint is the total emissions from all activities in your daily life

Reducing your emissions

The next step is to try to reduce your emissions as much as possible. This is just as important for businesses, who also have carbon footprints, as it is for individuals. There are lots of different ways that you can reduce your emissions. 

For example… 

  • Switch to a green energy provider
  • Reduce your meat and dairy consumption
  • Stop flying
  • Switch the lights off 
  • Buy second hand clothes 
  • Switch to a hybrid or electric car

For companies, a significant part of their carbon footprint is often made up of business travel by employees. Think about whether trips can be avoided and meetings done by video call instead. Flying is mile for mile the worst mode of transport for the environment, so try to avoid it whenever possible. 

Offsetting your emissions

Even if you have a super green lifestyle, you will still be responsible for some unavoidable emissions. Sadly, two-thirds of all electricity worldwide comes from fossil fuels. The supply chain of almost all our goods and services is carbon intensive, involving international transportation and plastic packaging. This is where carbon offsetting comes in to reach net carbon zero. 

Carbon offsetting involves either directly reducing emissions by taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, or by preventing future emissions. A good example of the first case is tree planting, as trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they grow. Take for example the Treepoints reforestation project in Panama. By protecting forestland and planting more species of trees and plants, carbon is sucked out of the atmosphere. The second type of offsetting includes renewable energy projects like solar and wind energy installations. A good example of this is the solar power project in Maharashtra, India. This project generates electricity from solar power, which avoids the need for fossil fuels which release polluting gases when burnt.

Planting biodiverse forests in Panama to reach carbon neutral
Planting biodiverse forests in Panama, a Gold Standard certified carbon reduction project

Global carbon neutral

The great thing about carbon offsetting is that you can support projects all over the world. It doesn’t matter where the carbon is emitted or reduced, the net result will be the same. This means that you can support communities and ecosystems on the other side of the planet.

Science shows that developing countries are already and will continue to be the most impacted by climate change. It is important therefore that people in developed countries can support communities in developing countries with climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Why some people are sceptical about carbon offsetting

Historically, people have been critical of carbon offsetting projects because it is difficult to see where your money is going. Knowing that your money is being used correctly and efficiently is vital. It’s all very well and good paying to plant a tree, but what happens if it gets chopped down the next day? 

The best way to guarantee this is to make sure the project you’re donating to is certified by an independent carbon reduction standard, such as Gold Standard or Verified Carbon Standard. These organisations ensure that projects are actually reducing CO2 emissions, as well as supporting sustainable development. 

Gold Standard for the Global Goals | The Gold Standard
Carbon offsetting standards including Gold Standard and Verra verify projects to ensure their efficacy and impact

One thing these standards will check is “additionality”. This means that a project can prove CO2 emissions would not have been reduced without their intervention. In order to carbon offset successfully, it is important to check that the project you are supporting has been independently verified.  Companies such as Treepoints offer this kind of support to simplify things for you. 

A licence to pollute…?

Furthermore, carbon offsetting has been criticised historically as a “licence to pollute.” Of course, carbon offsetting alone cannot solve the climate crisis. And it should only be a last resort once you have reduced your emissions as much as possible. However, it is an important step that allows us to reach carbon neutrality immediately. And studies have shown that people are not in fact using offsetting as an excuse to continue living carbon intensive lifestyles. In reality, they are doing it in conjunction with other measures like diet change to reduce their carbon emissions. And it is this kind of immediate action that is needed if we are to reach net zero by 2050 as a planet. 

Carbon neutral brands

More and more companies are becoming carbon neutral or announcing their carbon neutral targets. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon has declared that his company will be carbon neutral by 2040. Microsoft has promised to become carbon negative by 2030. Starbucks aims to be “resource positive” by the end of the decade through reducing water withdrawal, carbon emissions, and landfill waste by 50%. Even Unilever has declared its aim to be carbon neutral by 2039. They also intend to disclose on labels the amount of carbon used to produce items.

101 companies committed to reducing their carbon footprints
101 Companies Committed to Reducing their Carbon Footprints

The perils of greenwashing

This all sets a hopeful trend for big businesses paying more attention to the climate crisis. However we have to remain aware of the risk of ‘greenwashing’. This is where companies use words like “sustainable”, “green”, and “conscious” to suggest an environmental agenda without taking any real action. Fortunately, the media and governments are becoming increasingly aware of this, making it harder for brands to get away with it. 

If you are in doubt whether a company or product is actually carbon neutral, look out for labels and certifications. These should always be from independent third parties. 

Reaching your carbon neutral goal

So now you know what carbon neutral means and how to get there. Remember, calculate your footprint, reduce your emissions as much as possible, and then offset the remainder. When you’re ready to carbon offset, check out Treepoints who simplify the process for you with their simple membership plan. This enables you to support a varied portfolio of carbon reduction projects around the world.

So what are you waiting for?