What Does Carbon Neutral Mean? Carbon Jargon Broken Down

Depiction of renewable energy
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As the climate crisis becomes increasingly serious and businesses aim to take more accountability, we’re given more and more new carbon jargon to decipher. Apple committed to carbon neutral supply chains by 2030. Microsoft says it will be carbon negative by 2030.

These corporations, and others like them, will likely accomplish these goals by using renewable energy credits and climate positive design…the list of buzzwords goes on.

But what does it all mean? Let’s break down the carbon jargon and determine what effect these claims will actually have on climate change.

Defining Carbon Footprints and Being Carbon Neutral

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To talk about carbon neutrality, we must first define the carbon footprint. A company’s carbon footprint includes everything that they do that releases carbon dioxide (CO2). This includes Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions (see this post for an explanation between these emission types).

For example, emissions can occur as a result of onsite power generation for factories or shipping products to customers (both scope 1 emissions), buying electricity to run their factories (scope 2 emissions), or emissions from the use of their products (scope 3).

When a company or product is carbon neutral, its carbon emissions are equal to those that it offsets. It might reduce emissions by eliminating emission-producing aspects from its process completely or by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

For example, a company might avoid releasing emissions by installing solar panels to power its manufacturing plant rather than using traditional sources of energy. Or a company might use recycled materials for their products, like recycled plastic in shoes, compost bins, rain barrels, or whole lines of products.

It might use a carbon neutral shipping service to limit the emissions it releases in the first place. The same company might choose to offset emissions by paying another company to plant enough trees to absorb a product’s CO2 emissions.

In any case, the goal is to simply leave the level of emissions as it already was. With carbon neutrality, companies are either offsetting an equal amount of carbon to the amount that they release, or simply not emitting any carbon at all. In this way, they are leaving the environment as it is, neither contributing to increasing emissions nor taking away from them.

Maintaining Integrity With Carbon Offsetting

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It’s important to note that carbon offsetting has its fair share of criticisms. As a result, the EPA recommends that each company follows a set of criteria that ensure the integrity of offsetting emissions:

  • Real: A company’s emission reductions must be quantifiable and must have already occurred rather than be projected to occur. Companies must ensure accurate and complete accounting of emissions.
  • Permanent: Emission reductions or removals must be permanent. If they are reversed, there must be replacement mechanisms in place to remove the emissions again.
  • Additional: Emission reductions shouldn’t be reductions that would have happened anyway, or would have been a surplus. Instead, they should be the result of a response to the need for reductions. For example, a business can’t count the carbon offset by existing trees surrounding their facility. However, they can count carbon offset as the result of intentionally planting new trees for the specific purpose of reducing carbon.
  • Verifiable: We must be able to accurately monitor and verify that the reductions occurred.
  • Enforceable: Laws and regulations created by the EPA should define reductions, provide transparency, and ensure that just one company owns the reduction. While there aren’t any carbon offsetting laws yet, the EPA monitors and regulates emissions via laws like the Clean Air Act.

What’s the Difference Between Carbon Negative and Climate Positive Design?

If a company creates a carbon negative product, it’s a step further than neutrality. In short, being carbon negative means that a company has captured, removed, or offset more CO2 than it emits.

This leaves them with a negative amount of carbon emissions, which has a positive impact on global warming. Climate positive means essentially the same thing as carbon negative.

However, some companies are considering climate positive design before they create a new product. For example, a company like Patagonia might want to create a climate positive coat.

First, Patagonia would need to calculate the carbon footprint of the coat – how much carbon would they release due to material sourcing, production, and distribution?

Next, they need to look for ways to limit carbon released during this process. Also, Patagonia would consider ways to capture more carbon from the atmosphere so that, for each coat produced and sold, the company is offsetting more carbon (by whatever means) than it emits.

By using climate positive design, the company would effectively be repairing global warming rather than adding to it or remaining neutral.

The Air Company is a unique example of a company creating carbon negative products. Though it seems a bit gimmicky, the Air Company creates perfume, hand sanitizer, and even vodka with captured CO2. The captured CO2 would have been emitted into the atmosphere, but Air uses it to create ethanol.

Their perfume and sanitizer are carbon negative, removing about .03 kilograms of CO2 from the atmosphere per bottle. Given that the U.S. emitted about 6,600 million metrics tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, that is a lot of smelly perfume to save the planet! But we give them kudos for a cool idea and every bit helps.

Renewable Energy Credits and Carbon Footprints

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Companies often offset their environmental impact is by purchasing renewable energy credits or certificates, also known as RECs. These are tradeable, market-based certificates that represent the rights to the generation of renewable energy.

You are not purchasing energy when you purchase a REC. Instead, you’re purchasing a credit for renewable energy generated on your behalf. Others use that energy, completely unrelated to you or your companies operations. (Note that we explain how you can use renewable energy credits for offsetting your household energy too).

Why would we do this? Many companies, especially large companies, cannot lower their emissions without drastically changing their business model. They may even need to completely change the product they sell.

For example, a big trucking company will never be able to reach carbon neutrality or negative emissions unless they electrified their fleet. Instead, they could choose to support the companies that are producing renewable energy and improve their environmental impact in a roundabout way.

This isn’t an ideal solution for climate change. However, it does provide funding for companies that are doing their part to eliminate emissions and even remove CO2 from the atmosphere. In theory, it would also promote the production of renewable energy if demand for credits grew over time.

Why Does Being Carbon Negative, Climate Positive Design, and Carbon Neutral Matter?

In today’s world, every time you buy a product, drive your car, or get on the internet, you’re likely contributing to carbon emissions. It’s the way we’ve built our world. Companies are facing the same issue on a much grander scale, with much larger carbon emissions.

When a company aims to go carbon neutral or negative, it’s working to lessen its impact. When you hear about the carbon intensity of different products, the company is communicating the environmental impact of that product.

In a perfect world, we would simply stop releasing CO2 emissions completely. Instead, we’d focus on capturing the historical carbon that’s been trapped and growing in our atmosphere since the Industrial Age. This is simply not a reality – it would require us to stop living life as we know it.

Meanwhile, the issue is much larger than selling renewable energy credits and buying carbon negative products. Rich countries have benefitted from burning cheap fuel since the Industrial Age to reach their level of power today, and developing nations want access to the same cheap fuels that we had. Without it, they won’t be able to grow nearly as fast as developed countries did.

As a result of the complex, often political situation, scientists and experts have come up with many potential solutions to climate change that are currently being worked through – one of which is carbon neutrality.

Carbon neutral products and climate positive design won’t solve all of our problems. However, it gives us, as consumers, an opportunity to pick products that either cause no additional harm or have a small positive impact. It gives us the opportunity to vote with our dollars for a future full of environmentally-thoughtful products, and (hopefully) a lower global temperature.