Carbon jargon explained.
Getting to grips with carbon negative, carbon neutral and more.
Carbon isn't just carbon. Positive is bad, negative is awesome but unusual, neutral is good but could be better. Meanwhile the UN has set humanity a target of achieving net-zero, which sounds like achieving nothing but is actually a massive task. It’s all a little confusing.
When it comes to navigating a world facing a climate crisis, knowledge is power. We’re here to break down some carbon jargon to help you wrap your head around some key terms.
When carbon isn't just carbon.
Starting with the basics. ‘Carbon’ is often used as a shorthand to refer to CO2 and greenhouse gasses more generally. Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent and commonly released greenhouse gas, so ‘carbon’ has become the go-to way of referring to greenhouse gas emissions.
When you see ‘carbon’ used in the context of climate change or climate impact you can usually assume it’s being used as an easy placeholder for all greenhouse gasses.
What does net zero mean?
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that to avoid the most devastating impacts of global warming we (human society) need to reach net zero by 2050.
Net zero refers to a measurement of greenhouse gas emissions. Humans will reach net zero when we’re removing enough carbon from the atmosphere to make up for ALL of the carbon we’re adding to the atmosphere. Our net impact on the atmosphere will thus be zero.
Practically speaking this will require drastically reducing the amount of carbon we produce. Once we can’t reduce emissions any further we would then actively remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to ‘cancel out’ the carbon we still produce.
What is carbon positive?
We usually praise positivity, but being carbon positive is a rare exception. Carbon positive means you’re adding to the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and fueling climate change. When you carefully measure your emissions, even when taking into account any offsets, the number left is still higher than zero.
Most brands and products are carbon positive. In fact, the vast majority of people around the world live carbon positive lives. Brands can reduce their footprint until they’re carbon neutral (or even better, carbon negative). They can do this by increasing their offsets or changing the way they make products, by using carbon-trapping materials like natural cork.
What does Carbon neutral mean?
Carbon neutral is a very similar concept to net zero. A company or product is carbon neutral when you remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as you add to it. You’re effectively ‘cancelling out’ all of your greenhouse gas emissions through carbon offsets.
The result is that your impact on the planet is neutral — you’re not making the problem any worse but you’re not actively improving the stability of the climate either. You can think of it as the ‘breaking even’ of climate accounting.
Being carbon neutral is a good thing and is definitely worthy of praise. But it’s possible to go one step further.
What is carbon negative?
Being carbon negative is the best possible situation! You achieve carbon negative status when you remove more greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere than you add to it. Carbon negative uses the term ‘negative’ in a numerical sense. The carbon you add to the atmosphere is less than zero, so would be represented with a - symbol.
Being carbon negative actively helps to fight climate change by reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Individual products can be carbon negative, or an entire company could achieve carbon negative status by offsetting more carbon than they produce during all aspects of their operations.
One more time for the people in the back: being carbon negative is GOOD for the planet.
What are carbon offsets?
The pathway to becoming carbon neutral or carbon negative is almost always through investing in carbon offsets to ‘cancel out’ the emissions you produce. Carbon offsets are when you support projects that result in lowering the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
There are two broad types of carbon offsets:
Carbon offsets that actively remove carbon from the atmosphere, like planting trees to absorb CO2.
Carbon offsets that prevent more carbon from being released elsewhere, like investing in clean energy.
More carbon questions?
If you want to know more about the positives of being carbon negative, head over to co2neg.com