What is the difference between net zero, carbon neutral, carbon negative/ positive, offsetting / insetting?  

This week (2-8 July) is the UK’s national awareness week for Net Zero.  To mark the occasion, we want to de-mystify some of the language around net zero, to distinguish between the sometimes-confusing terminology and establish what is the difference between net zero, carbon neutral, and carbon positive? Beyond this, we will also explore what is offsetting and insetting and is it necessary?  

First, a note on why this is important. The science shows clearly that in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change and preserve a livable planet, global temperature increase needs to be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this, emissions need to be reduced by almost half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

There are local, national, and international targets to reach net zero. We must act now as a global community.  

What is ‘net zero’?  

Net zero is a state of emitting no greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) emissions and/or to ensure that any remaining emissions are removed. However, in most cases getting to true zero is impossible e.g., if making a product or offering a service. You cannot avoid some emissions, and these are called unavoidable emissions.

To become net zero, you get as close as you can to true zero and then offset the rest of your emissions – i.e. the unavoidable emissions. The offsets used to tackle the remaining emissions must be carbon removal offsets.  

What is carbon neutral?  

Carbon neutrality can best be described as a useful step towards net zero but is not a valid target in itself. That’s because to qualify as carbon neutral, you are allowed to offset all your emissions in contrast to net zero, which limits offsetting to less than 10% of unavoidable emissions, so it does not necessarily mean you are making any quantitative reductions to your own emissions. You can carry on as usual and pay someone else to do something to reduce carbon elsewhere, calling yourself carbon neutral as soon as you have paid for offsets. In contrast, net zero cannot be achieved overnight. 

Furthermore, the offsets for carbon neutrality can be either avoidance offsets or the more active removal offsets necessary for net zero status (we explain more about this later).

What is carbon positive / negative?  

Carbon negative or positive mean the same thing and are simply an add-on to being carbon neutral.  It means that you have purchased offsets beyond your own emissions. You may still be emitting exactly as you were when you became carbon negative, positive or neutral, but are offsetting those emissions. Again, this can be a possible useful step but isn’t a valid target in itself.

Offsetting and insetting  

You may have heard just some of the controversy over the use of offsetting and as you’ve seen in the definitions of carbon neutral and carbon positive/negative above, they can be used and result in no behaviour changes at all.  

Whilst there is disagreement over the widespread use of offsetting, there is strong international agreement that any offsetting to achieve net zero requires robust standards.   

Offsetting is reducing GHG emissions or increasing GHG removals through external activities so that someone’s net contribution to global emissions is reduced. This usually involves a marketplace for carbon credits or other exchange. There are two kinds of offsets:  

  1. Active carbon removal offsets: this means putting in measures that actively pull or absorb greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, either by doing it yourself or paying someone else to do it, anywhere in the world. Examples include planting trees and seagrass.  
  1. Avoidance offsets: these are activities the reduce emissions by preventing their release into the atmosphere – for example investing in solar, to avoid fossil fuels being burnt; stopping grasslands being changed to croplands etc. – so they reduce emissions by making something happen which might not otherwise have happened if the normal course of action was taken. 

Getting to net zero can only be done using active carbon removal offsets for those unavoidable emissions.  Meanwhile, carbon neutrality can be achieved by any kind of offset. 

For a thought-provoking skit on carbon offsetting, see this short video by ‘Cheat Neutral’:

Insetting refers specifically to GHG reductions that are directly related, either by geography, production, or commodity to a company. It differs from offsetting in that it relates directly to a company’s own value chain. For example, in the fashion sector insetting could be using organic, carbon-negative materials to make their clothing. 

Traditionally lots of companies have outsourced their production and that also meant outsourcing emissions and not really thinking about them any further. But with the growing climate crisis, more companies are addressing these emissions with insetting as a way of addressing a company’s carbon footprint within its own supply chain. 

What people have agreed to 

Net zero is the internationally agreed upon goal to halt the climate crisis. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) have concluded that we need to reach net zero CO2 by 2050 to remain consistent with 1.5°C, of warming.  

The Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C, with no or low overshoot.  

Basically, there is no room for getting this wrong. To stop the worst effects of climate change, we must reach net zero by 2050, if not earlier.  

The UK government, along with many other global communities, has committed to this goal. However, the UK’s ability to hit this target has been called into question.  

More locally, Oxfordshire County Council has committed for the county to be net zero by 2050 and for their internal operations to be net zero carbon by 2030.  

Oxford City Council has committed to reaching net zero a decade earlier by 2040. To enact this, they have formed the Zero Carbon Oxford Partnership (ZCOP) bringing together the universities, hospitals, councils, large businesses, and communities to support the city in its journey to net zero carbon emissions. They have also published a Roadmap, developed with the Carbon Trust, which models a pathway to net-zero. 

At Low Carbon Hub we are committed to doing all we can to build a better energy system and being part of the transition to net zero energy system.  

We are calling for the creation of a new system that: 

  • has renewable generation and energy efficiency at its heart, reducing carbon emissions 
  • makes the money we spend on energy work harder for the benefit of our communities and strengthening the local economy 
  • supports the creation of more locally-owned community energy projects, putting local power in the hands of local people 
  • makes our homes, businesses, and community buildings healthier and more comfortable 
  • is smart and flexible so as to be able to make the most of future technological solutions. 

Sources and thanks to: