The Difference Between Carbon Neutral and Net Zero Emissions

As a business seeking ways to reduce your overall carbon footprint, there are a few paths you can take to be more sustainable.

As a business seeking ways to reduce your overall carbon footprint, there are a few paths you can take to be more sustainable. The first step is calculating your total footprint to understand the sources of your emissions. Once that is complete, you need to determine your ultimate goal - do you want to be carbon neutral or get to net-zero? Your answer will determine the path you need to take.


What is the difference between carbon neutral and net-zero?


Carbon neutrality is when you balance your greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by offsetting or removing the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere as you produce. Often this is achieved by investing in carbon credits. More specifically, carbon neutral offsets are based on the removal of carbon through things such as renewable energy generation. GHG protocol breaks down emissions into three categories:


Scope 1: Company vehicles; fuel combustion, fugitive (unintentional) emissions.

Scope 2: Purchased electricity; heat and steam. 

Scope 3: Purchased goods and services; business travel; employee commuting; waste disposal; investments; leased assets/franchises; transportation and distribution. 


It’s important to note that to be carbon neutral you are only required to reduce direct emissions (scope 1 and scope 2 emissions). Scope 3 emissions or indirect emissions are optional. 


Carbon Neutral Standard and Certification

The only internationally recognized standard for carbon neutrality is known as PAS 2060. The organizations Carbon Trust, NQA, and ControlUnion can issue this standard.


Carbon Neutral Offsets 


Carbon neutral offsets will involve carbon reduction projects that reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. There are various methodologies for carbon reduction including:  


Renewable Energy: Also known as clean energy, this encompasses energy that is generated from natural sources which don’t run out like the sun and the wind. Think solar wind farms. 


Forestry and Conservation: In a nutshell, avoiding deforestation while promoting reforestation. 


Methane Capture: Livestock emit an extraordinary amount of methane. There’s myriad projects looking to address this, like a study at the University of New Hampshire which hypothesizes that supplementing seaweed into bovine diet reduces their methane output. 


Fuel Switching: An example would be powering vehicles with ethanol over gasoline, or using biodiesel over fossil diesel.


Taking this principle even further, to be Net-Zero means that any carbon emissions that have been created by your business are completely negated by taking out the same amount from the atmosphere. Net-zero takes into account all GHG emissions (scopes 1, 2, and 3), including “embodied carbon” which is produced during building construction. It’s about the entire supply chain. 


Net-Zero Standard


The Science Based Target Initiative (SBTi) is in charge of net-zero standards and criteria which was finalized at COP26 (the most recent U.N. climate conference). There’s several conditions for companies to take on this more ambitious Net-Zero Standard: 


  1. The central tenet of the Net-Zero standard is the focus on deep, rapid emission cuts that limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius.  
  2. There are both short and long term goals. Cut emissions in half by 2030, and by 2050 organizations will have close to zero emissions. Those residual emissions which cannot feasibly be eliminated will be addressed by permanently removing that amount of atmospheric CO2 through other means, bringing the total output back to zero. 
  3. As an organization you can’t actually claim Net-Zero status until the long-term status is met. That means the majority of organizations will have emission reductions of 90-95 % by 2050 and then offset the remaining carbon balance.
  4. Look beyond the value chain. There’s a pressing need to boost climate financing. As such, the SBTi advocates companies investing outside their own science-based targets in addition to their deep emission cuts. 

Net-Zero Offsets


It’s important to underline the fact that Net-Zero offsets can only be used for “hard to decarbonize” activities. These involve carbon removal technology that actually takes CO2 out of the atmosphere.  There are currently two acceptable offsets:


  1. Mature tree planting (at least ten years old) projects. Good ol’ photosynthesis. 
  2. Utilizing sophisticated carbon removal technology. There’s Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) which involves burning plant biomass for energy and then trapping the CO2 that’s produced. Or, you could use Direct Air Capture (DAC); a technological method that uses chemical reactions to separate and capture CO2 from the air around us. When air moves over these chemicals, they selectively react with and remove CO2, thus allowing the other components of the air to pass through. 

With this in mind, the captured CO2 must be stored via one of these two means in compliance with the Net-Zero standard: 


  1. Geological storage: Pump that CO2 into rock formations underground. 
  2. Mineral carbonation: Have CO2 react with compounds such as magnesium oxide and calcium oxide to create stable rock compounds. 

Green Places simplifies the process to reduce your carbon footprint for your immediate, short, and long term reduction goals. Whether your organization is looking to focus on carbon neutrality or aspiring to a net-zero status, both modus operandi are invaluable when it comes to the sustainability principle. 








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