What does ‘net-zero’ really mean?

Whether it’s by 2025 or 2050, companies and leaders around the world are signing up to net zero commitments. Meanwhile, some are hoping to go net-negative, others are going climate positive and – to add to the confusion – there’s also promises of carbon neutrality. 

It may seem simple on the surface – we need to stop global warming – but with all the jargon being thrown around, what does it all actually mean? What’s the difference between carbon neutral, net-zero, net-negative and anything in between? 

To demystify these terms, and help you understand the commitments businesses are making, here’s a brief overview of some of the most common climate targets, along with the companies adopting them.

What does it mean to go carbon neutral?

The clue is in the name with carbon neutrality, which involves ensuring no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to the official definition of carbon neutral adopted by the European Parliament, this can include offsetting emissions. To offset CO2, companies or leaders can invest in low carbon technologies, renewable energy or energy efficiency to balance out their carbon footprint. 

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In 2007, the first multinational company to aim at carbon neutrality was Google, which achieved carbon neutrality by offsetting all its carbon emissions to date by investing in renewable energy. This did not mean the company stopped emitting CO2 altogether, and Google itself admits there’s more it can do.

What does net zero mean?

Taking targets up one step, net zero means cancelling out emissions of all greenhouse gases, not just CO2. So carbon neutral could also be called ‘net-zero carbon emissions’. 

At least a fifth of the world’s major companies have committed to going net zero. These include BP, Sainsbury’s and Apple. In the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, the British government announced it hopes to go net zero emissions by 2050 with a strategy that depends largely upon us developing technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

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There’s further leaders can go. And that’s where net-negative comes in. 

What does net negative mean?

One of the most progressive goals is for international players to go net negative or climate positive. Net negative means returning to pre-industrial levels of atmospheric greenhouse gas through decarbonising (absorbing CO2 back into the earth). 

To achieve this, the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, led by the government’s ex-scientific advisor, Sir David King, advises we must stop emitting CO2 and divest from fossil fuels, whilst also removing carbon from the atmosphere. There are many means to do this, including natural carbon sinks such as krill, reforesting land and peat bogs. 

Microsoft is taking a step towards net negative operations, aiming to go carbon negative. By this it means halving emissions by 2030 and then removing all its previous emissions from the atmosphere. 

Microsoft President Brad Smith has said: “While the world will need to reach net zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so.”

[Find positive stories about inspiring people committing to climate action here]