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By now, you’ve probably heard both terms from institutions claiming they have achieved or have a goal of achieving either carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions. Maybe you didn’t think much of it or maybe you wondered if there’s any difference between the two. 

Let’s turn to Google. It gives the following definitions from Oxford Languages:

  • Net zero: “A target of completing negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity, to be achieved by reducing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

  • Carbon neutral: “Making no net release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, especially through offsetting emissions by planting trees.”

They sound pretty similar which is why you might not know the difference between them and may have seen them used interchangeably. They both refer to the balance of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, however, the slight difference in language is where the distinction lies. 

The first difference is the emissions that are included in the two terms. 

Net zero refers to greenhouse gases as a whole, not just carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is the GHG you probably hear about the most, however, it is not the most potent nor the only one. Emissions may be reported in a unit of CO2 or a unit of CO2-eq (or CO2e), the latter of which includes all GHGs whose effects have been calculated relative to CO2 to create one unit. 

Carbon neutral refers only to CO2 emissions and not all GHGs. While CO2 is an important GHG and the one most often talked about, it is not the only one. For example, methane (CH4) is another GHG whose impact the EPA reports to be 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period. Discluding methane and other GHGs does not form the entire picture. 

The second difference between the two lies in how the emissions are balanced

The first part of the net zero definition claims that human activity that produces these emissions must be reduced in order to balance GHG emissions. This requires one to actually reduce the amount of emissions they produce in whatever manner they are able to achieve this.

The second part of the carbon neutral definition claims it is achieved by offsetting emissions and gives the example of planting trees. Unlike net zero, carbon neutral does not require one to reduce its emissions, but only offset them in some other way. 

This means that in order to reach carbon neutrality you don’t have to change your behavior, though you may choose to, you just have to make up for it in some other way, like planting enough trees to sequester the carbon you emitted. In order to reach net zero, your behavior must change and the amount of GHG emissions produced must be reduced.

How should you use this information?

These terms can be confusing to distinguish between, and you might see different definitions. If you’re wondering about a specific organization, look into how they plan to achieve carbon neutrality or net zero. Understanding how an organization is defining and using the terms can help you make an informed decision as to whether the organization aligns with your values.

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