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Understanding carbon neutral, carbon negative, net zero, climate positive




When we all know what terms to use, we all can compare the efforts of nations, organizations and individuals. If we all come up with our own definitions and terms, none of us will be able to know what others are doing.


Carbon neutral

You’re carbon neutral if the amount of CO₂ emissions you put into the atmosphere is the same as the amount of CO₂ emissions you remove from the atmosphere. Your impact is neutral, zero. Putting it bluntly, you’re maybe not making it actively worse, but you’re not making it better either.


Carbon negative

Carbon negative takes that idea a step further. You’re carbon negative if the amount of CO₂ emissions you remove from the atmosphere is bigger than the amount of CO₂ emissions you put into the atmosphere. Your impact is positive, meaning you’re actively doing something to better the climate.


Net zero, net zero emissions

Net zero is broadly the same as carbon neutral: Emissions are still being generated, but they’re offset by the same amount elsewhere. The “net total” of your emissions is then zero.

The confusion here is that sometimes net zero is used to talk about all greenhouse gases and sometimes it’s used to talk only about CO₂. Technologies play a big part in “net zero” as well: If a process generates CO₂, but also captures and stores it, it can be net zero. An example of this would be a coal-fired power plant that’s fitted with carbon capture and carbon storage tech. A plant like this could possibly qualify as net zero.

Most national and international climate goals are aiming for net zero by either 2030 or 2050. To reach it, emissions must be reduced, but offsetting and sequestering emissions are also absolutely necessary to reach the goals.


Zero emissions

This one should be easy, but it’s actually not. You’re creating zero emissions when there’s no CO₂ released at all. In our current system, however, no technology is truly zero emissions. Even the greenest of tech has so called embedded emissions. These are emissions that are created in the manufacturing of technology. So there might be zero ongoing emissions from use.


Don't Believe the Hype

Low emissions, low carbon

9 times out of 10 this term tells us that we’ve wandered into marketing territory. You’re “low emissions” when you create less CO₂ than would be considered business as usual. But how much less? What’s business as usual? What are you comparing your numbers to? It’s a confusing term, and therefore best avoided, sustainability experts say.


Carbon positive, climate positive

Marketing term alert here as well. Some companies have used these terms to describe their efforts to reduce emissions. Both slightly confusing terms are used to talk about what scientists would just call carbon negative.


What does it matter? Why are the terms so important anyway?

Confusing terms are usually the product of marketing. When we all know what terms to use, we all can compare the efforts of nations, organizations and individuals. If we all come up with our own definitions and terms, none of us will be able to know what others are doing.

Honest sustainability communications will always be clear about what’s actually being done: what is included in the emission calculations, how the emissions are compensated, and how compensation fits into emission reduction efforts.

Bottom line? Using the correct terminology can make the difference between actual climate action and greenwashing.


At Compensate, they believe carbon negativity is the only way forward. The “safe levels” of CO₂ (350 ppm) were surpassed back in 1987, so we have both the historical responsibility and it is critically urgent to actively clean up the atmosphere. Learn more about this.