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What is the difference between carbon neutral and zero-carbon?

Learn about the difference in these two commonly used terms


Climate change is something we're all aware of, the planet is heating up at a rapid rate. Countries around the world have released their own different sustainability frameworks and set their own net zero target, normally by 2050. This worldwide change was driven by the Paris Agreement, signed at COP26 in 2016. Just like the countries themselves, businesses are moving towards a greener future, moving towards more sustainable ways of working. This is often done through Carbon Neutrality, but what does that mean?

Carbon Neutral vs Net Zero

Carbon neutrality, zero-carbon, and net zero all refer to the practice of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level where they do not contribute to global warming. However, there is one difference between the terms that are important to understand: zero-carbon means that no more greenhouse gases are emitted but carbon neutral also means that any unavoidable emissions are offset.

Companies often have targets of achieving net zero by 2050, normally based on sustainability thinking from the Paris agreement. Normally, this will include switching to LED lights or low-energy heating solutions. However, whilst this is a step in the right direction for helping the planet, it still doesn't get to net zero emissions for these businesses.

You may have heard the terms carbon neutral and net zero emissions used to describe organizations, businesses, or events. Both terms are used to mean that the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted is zero.

A company is considered carbon neutral if it offsets all its unavoidable emissions. For example, if a company cannot avoid emitting some greenhouse gases (such as natural gas), it purchases credits from another organization that invests in renewable energy and uses these credits to offset its unavoidable emissions so they cancel each other out. This allows businesses to reach their targets, often in line with goals for reaching net zero by 2050.

When is an event considered zero-carbon?

An event is considered zero-carbon if it meets an industry standard for the lowest possible level of greenhouse gas emissions per person attending. This might mean using renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind turbines instead of fossil fuels; transporting attendees via public transit rather than private cars; recycling waste materials instead of sending them straight into landfill sites; printing tickets on recycled paper (or simply distributing them electronically); providing reusable cups for drinks at receptions...the list goes on! Some might say that they reach net zero emissions by doing this, however, I'd be often in the group disagreeing with this statement, as they're still generating a significant amount of carbon emissions.

Carbon neutrality does not mean that no emissions are produced. It means that any emissions which cannot be avoided are offset.

Carbon neutrality does not mean that no emissions are produced. It means that any emissions which cannot be avoided are offset. The idea behind carbon offsets is to provide a monetary incentive for companies to invest in clean energy or environmentally friendly technology, instead of investing in traditional fossil fuel consumption. For example, if you buy a pair of jeans at Gap Inc., you'll know that they've invested $100k into helping farmers plant shade trees on their plantations and reduce water usage by 20%.

You can also buy your own carbon credits from companies like Carbonside to offset the CO2 emissions from your daily life through their website or app.

Carbon neutrality is also sometimes known as net zero, a term that describes the balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere.

When you’re carbon neutral, all your emissions are offset. This means that every tonne of CO₂ emitted is balanced by removing an equivalent amount of CO₂ from the atmosphere.

Some companies choose a permanent offset option – they pay someone else to take the same amount of CO₂ out of the air as they produce over time (like planting trees). Others use a temporary offset option – they pay someone to reduce their emissions short-term while they work towards getting completely carbon neutral.

When it comes to climate change mitigation, we need everyone on board. That’s why it’s important to achieve low carbon targets like yours and ours to lead by example by becoming carbon neutral today!

The term “net zero” or "carbon zero" is also used concerning methane and other greenhouse gases – often only in agriculture and waste management.

The term “net zero emissions” is also used concerning methane and other greenhouse gases – often only in agriculture and waste management. When a company managed to reach net zero emissions does not mean that no emissions are produced, it means that any emissions which cannot be avoided are offset by buying carbon credits from projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere.

These terms both involve limiting or completely eliminating greenhouse gas emissions but they do not mean precisely the same thing.

Zero-carbon refers to a process or product that does not produce any net amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. Carbon neutral means that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted equals the amount removed from the atmosphere by natural processes such as photosynthesis and recycling. Carbon neutrality does not necessarily mean that your company has no impact on climate change; it just means you don't make things worse than they would be otherwise.


The takeaway from all this is that carbon neutral and zero-carbon are both ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They're not interchangeable terms, though – if you want to be fully sure about what you're doing, it's best to check with an expert on the subject!

Curious about how to balance net zero for your business? Give us a call or email and we can help your transition to achieve net zero emissions.