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Zero Carbon vs Carbon Neutral: What’s the Difference?

You have recently heard more people use the terms “zero carbon” and “carbon neutral” to define goals for combating climate change. But what do they actually mean? Find out how these terms differ and how you can use them to examine your own sustainability practices.

The Global Warming Problem

Zero carbon and carbon neutral are two different approaches to ending global warming. First, let’s outline the factors causing the problem.

Greenhouse Gases

The main contributors to global warming are greenhouse gasses, like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Many greenhouse gases are found in Earth’s atmosphere normally and are produced by processes like respiration, animal waste, and decomposition. Discussions of greenhouse gases often focus on carbon dioxide, because it is very abundant and stays in the atmosphere longer than other greenhouse gases.

While greenhouse gases are naturally occurring, they’re normally cycled through natural processes and different environmental systems and don’t accumulate in the atmosphere. For example, the photosynthesis process of plants takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and uses it to make glucose, thus helping to maintain balance.

As an analogy, you can think of the atmosphere as the driveway to your house. In winter, snow falls onto the driveway regularly, just like carbon dioxide is regularly released into the atmosphere. You shovel snow off the driveway every day, just like plant photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. If there isn’t too much snowfall, you have plenty of time to clear the driveway and leave your house for work every day. This would be like if the daily snowfall on your driveway increased drastically. Unless you were to change how you manage it, you’d be trapped in your house, just like the heat trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Since global warming has adverse effects on how the planet functions, it’s of paramount importance that we slow down the process. Let’s look at our two approaches: carbon neutral and zero carbon.

Carbon Neutral

The first method is to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Returning to our driveway analogy, this would be like enlisting the help of a friend or using a snowblower instead of a shovel to get rid of the snow faster.

We refer to this approach as being carbon neutral. A community or company that is carbon neutral balances the amount of carbon dioxide it creates with the amount of carbon dioxide it removes from the atmosphere.

Carbon Offsetting

Carbon offsetting is typically done through financially supporting projects that increase the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere. There are many types of carbon offset projects, many of which have auxiliary environmental value such as helping to plant or maintain forests, promoting and implementing renewable energy sources, developing new waste disposal technologies, or implementing local community systems that increase energy efficiency.

Carbon offsetting is a method for companies and individuals to reduce their carbon footprint.

Zero Carbon

The other way to fix this problem is to add less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This would be like extending your roof over part of your driveway so that there is less snow to remove.

This approach is called zero carbon. A zero carbon system is one that’s worked to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced to a level that is covered by the system’s offset efforts so that the sum total carbon added by the system to the atmosphere amounts to nothing.

Oftentimes a zero carbon commitment means making significant changes to how a company or community is run, and being conscious of where and how waste occurs, so it can be reduced.

As an example, perhaps you normally take five flights in a year to attend conferences, which adds a significant amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If you were committed to achieving zero carbon, you might choose to only fly to two of the conferences and either video into the other conferences or travel by train, which contributes less carbon dioxide.

Which Approach is Best for You?

Zero carbon and carbon neutral are two sides of the same coin. Both are valuable in terms of reducing greenhouse gas levels, but there are some pros and cons to each approach.

Carbon neutrality is an easier starting point, we can help you calculate your personal or business carbon footprint and purchase carbon credits to offset it. It requires less planning and dedication than making the large-scale changes to your routines that can be necessary when pursuing a zero carbon goal.

In the long-term, current human contributions of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere are so high that there is a limited capacity for offsetting by itself. Ultimately, an approach that aims toward zero carbon systems is absolutely necessary and it will take a combination of both zero carbon and carbon neutral tactics to create lasting change.

Where to Start in Your Carbon Reduction Journey

Many organizations striving to reduce their carbon emissions refer to standards set by the Paris Agreement to set their goals. As an internationally agreed-upon set of clearly outlined goals based on current climate change research, the Paris Agreement can lend some helpful guidelines to those who are just getting started in reducing their carbon emissions.

Additionally, the Carbon Credit Capital team is always here to keep you informed and help you make the best decisions in your own carbon reduction journey. Reach out to us to learn more about how you can contribute to a zero carbon world with your lifestyle or business.