Image: Climeworks

What’s the Difference Between Carbon Neutral, Zero Carbon, and Negative Emissions?

Cameron Brown
Oct 4, 2018 · 3 min read

We hear these terms all the time, but if you had to explain them to a friend over coffee, how well could you do it?

To communicate these concepts well, we need to understand them clearly ourselves.

Let’s get into it.

Carbon Neutral vs. Zero Carbon

Image: Sandia Labs

Carbon Neutral: Refers to achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference.

The key word to remember is “net.” Think of it like breaking even. Whatever you’re making or doing, you capture or offset as much carbon as you produce to make or do that thing.

For example, a building with solar panels that sends renewable energy to the grid that is equal to the energy it uses from the grid can be considered “net zero” energy or carbon neutral.

Zero Carbon: This is a case when no carbon was emitted from the get-go, so no carbon needs to be captured or offset.

For example, a household or commercial building that is off-grid, running entirely on solar, and using zero fossil fuels can label it’s energy “zero carbon.”

What Does Negative Emissions Mean?

Image: Climeworks

Negative Emissions: Refers to a number of technologies, the objective of which is the large-scale removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Negative emissions is the mystical unicorn. You can find which companies are exciting in this space in our post The Rise of Carbon Capture.

Paired with widespread renewable energy, negative emissions will be a key player in dodging (dipping, diving, ducking, and dodging) runaway climate change.

All jokes aside, we cannot move in this direction fast enough.

The Challenge Ahead: Moving to Zero Carbon ASAP

Image: Source

On his blog Only Zero Carbon, Dr. Peter Carter shares that most scientists accept shooting for zero carbon to be “Aim for zero net carbon emissions. We use carbon neutral as shorthand for zero net impact on radiative climate forcing.”

Dr. Carter points out the danger of this definition. For example, take an organization that operates in a highly inefficient building running on fossil fuels. Even if they pay to offset that energy with renewable energy credits, the CO2 from their energy use is still being released into the atmosphere.

And he asserts that the only answer, if we want to give the climate a shot at stabilizing, is to get away from fossil fuels entirely and move to 100% renewable energy. Otherwise, carbon neutral will not cut it.

Act on Climate

Live in San Francisco Bay Area? Join leaders from the intersection of technology and sustainability in Oakland at the Verge 18 conference Oct. 16–18.

Cleantech Rising

Cleantech Rising sheds light on the world's greatest…

Cleantech Rising

Cleantech Rising sheds light on the world's greatest environmental issues and the advanced technology to solve them. We connect people who are passionate about sustainability to jobs in the cleantech industry.

Cameron Brown

Written by

I care about people and the environment that surrounds and connects us — writer + environmental activist + cleantech advocate + design thinker

Cleantech Rising

Cleantech Rising sheds light on the world's greatest environmental issues and the advanced technology to solve them. We connect people who are passionate about sustainability to jobs in the cleantech industry.