"Net Zero", "Carbon Negative"...what does it all mean?

Carbon Negative Low Emissions Net Zero Net Zero Emissions Zero Emissions

All over the world governments, cities, and businesses are taking steps to tackle climate change by pledging to “achieve carbon neutrality” by a certain date. In reading articles about what strategies they are implementing, you will no doubt have come across terms such as ‘Net-zero’, ‘Zero emissions’, ‘Low Carbon’, ‘Carbon positive’ and ‘Carbon Negative’, but what do they all mean?

Each of these terms (some of which are synonyms), describe a different stage in the journey to sustainability, and vary from one another depending on the situation a Country or business is in, and whether they are setting themselves short, medium, or long term goals.

Net Zero Emissions (or Carbon Neutral / Climate Neutral)

This term, which can be used to describe a company service, as well as a product or an event, does not indicate that greenhouse emissions will be completely eliminated, but that the ones that are emitted, will be offset (or removed) elsewhere in an equal amount. 

Net Zero Emissions is often used as an equivalent term to Carbon or Climate Neutral, or Climate Neutrality, because it aims to achieve an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced, and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere.

Examples of offset activities include planting trees to absorb CO₂ (Learn more about trees and all the good they do for the planet here), using other natural ecosystems to increase carbon stored in the biosphere, or through funding climate-beneficial projects to make up for the greenhouse gases that are emitted.

Zero emissions

Zero emission refers to a process where no Carbon Dioxide is released in the atmosphere at all. Unfortunately, at the moment in our current global mining and manufacturing system, there is not a single technology that can say it produces zero emissions throughout.

In fact, even though certain alternatives to fossil fuel energy, such as solar panels and wind energy, are often said to release zero-emissions, technically, they still have what are known as "embedded emissions”, which are those created during the manufacturing process. 

Basically, once installed it’s true that green technologies do not produce any ongoing emissions, but still, as far as definitions go, their overall life cycle cannot be labeled as completely ‘Zero emission’.


Low emissions

This term is used when a company is generating greenhouse gases at a lower rate than the business usually would.

An example of this could be switching from coal-fired to gas-fired power to generate the same amount of electricity, although with considerably less emissions.


Carbon Negative (or Climate Positive) 

In this case a Country, city, business or building, goes beyond achieving net zero carbon emissions and actually creates an environmental benefit by removing additional CO₂ from the atmosphere.

This means removing CO₂ from the atmosphere, or sequestering and storing more CO₂ than is emitted. This might include a bioenergy process in which Carbon Dioxide is initially captured and absorbed by organic material and then released on conversion to energy. Therefore, when talking about a process that is Carbon-negative, overall emissions are stable and there is no net increase in CO₂.

Ideally Carbon Neutrality will become the norm across the board, or at least what most businesses and governments will strive to achieve, but until then Climate Positive initiatives can help pick up some of the slack from people or companies, that may not yet have the means to reduce their own carbon footprints

Will we make it by 2050?

Many governments have placed a significant emphasis on achieving Net Zero Emissions by 2050, but whether you have faith that that will actually happen or not, we can’t stop there, aiming instead for carbon positive or climate positive outcomes all over the world.

As of June 2020, the countries and regions that adopted net-zero targets were Austria, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Denmark, the European Union, Fiji, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, the Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Of course change will only come through governmental policies, new technologies and behavioral shifts, but other ways to achieve sustainability targets and reducing emissions, are by improving the efficiency of food production, changing dietary choices, stopping deforestation, and reducing food loss and waste. 


We always say that ‘Every bit counts’ and of course, even though you may not be in charge of directly making policies, you can still do your bit by changing daily habits and raising awareness on certain issues. 

Keep following our blog for more news and more tips on how to achieve a more sustainable lifestyle.

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