We are living in a world of growing concern over our contribution to the planet. Over the next few years, the need and desire to reduce the carbon footprints of individuals, businesses, and countries will only increase. For many, who wish to make a positive contribution to the fight against climate change, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the terminology and specific sustainability terms employed by organisations to describe their targets and achievements. Understanding these terms will be crucial to helping your organisation deliver on ambitious and impressive targets as the world moves towards greater efficiency and sustainability.
In this blog, you will find straightforward definitions of the most common and important sustainability terms. Understanding these terms will be an important first step.
Net zero is the target of completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity. This will be achieved by reducing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and permanently containing them. This is important because the point at which net zero is reached is the point at which the contribution of carbon dioxide to global warming will stop.
Net zero is also the focal point of the Paris Climate Agreement. This is because we are unlikely to reduce our emissions to zero by 2050, the timescale required if we are to limit climate change at 1.5C. Because of this, we will need to combine our reduction of emissions with the permanent removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Carbon-neutral is when a process makes or results in no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, especially due to carbon offsetting. This is a similar term to net zero, both involving reduction and balance of our carbon output. However, they also differ in important ways. Whereas net-zero is about the combination of offsetting emissions with the simultaneous reduction of emissions, carbon-neutral refers to balancing out the total amount of carbon emissions with the removal of carbon from the atmosphere.
Essentially, carbon-neutral is the process of doing enough good for the environment that it is permissible to emit an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. This can be achieved by offsetting the emissions directly or by supporting greenhouse gas reduction initiatives such as renewable-energy projects.
Zero-carbon means that a process does not result in the release of any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Examples of this include generating electricity with a wind farm or through solar panels. This is because those energy sources do not emit carbon when they are used to produce electricity and, therefore, are producing zero-carbon. Unlike net zero, which is about reducing the net effects of emissions to zero, zero-carbon aims to reduce the emissions entirely.
Different types of emissions
Scope 1 emissions are direct greenhouse gas emissions that occur from sources controlled by an organization. Scope 1 emissions most often include those associated with fuel combustion in boilers, furnaces, vehicles.
Scope 2 emissions are indirect GHG emissions associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat, or cooling. Scope 2 emissions physically occur at the facility where they are generated but are still accounted for in an organization’s greenhouse gas inventory because they result from the organization’s energy use.
Scope 3 emissions, also known as value chain emissions, are the result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization, but that the organization indirectly impacts in its value chain. Scope 3 emissions usually represent most an organization’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere because of the activities of a particular individual or organization. It includes direct emissions, which are the results of fossil-fuel combustion in manufacturing, heating, and transportation, as well as emissions required to produce the electricity associated with goods and services. Though usually referring to carbon dioxide, carbon footprints can also include the emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane or nitrous oxide.
Often, the terms net-zero, carbon neutral, and zero-carbon used interchangeably, while not much thought is given to the different degrees of emissions. Understanding the difference can be a crucial tool in the optimisation of your organisation’s climate strategy. Businesses that seek to go carbon-neutral, rather than net-zero, have often been accused of ‘greenwashing,’ presenting their aims as more environmentally friendly than they are, simply because they have misrepresented their actual goal.
It is also important to understand the terms so that your organisation can properly scrutinise the emissions created in your value chain by your partners and make an informed decision based on their climate practices. As the climate crisis become even more important, it is necessary for businesses to become as informed as possible.