Brightly colored graphic of planet earth with a large red question mark, surrounded by environmental terms: net zero, zer, decarbonization, carbon negative, zero emissions, etc.

Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, governments and businesses have pledged their commitments to fight global climate change. But with lots of new buzzwords like “net zero” and “carbon neutral,” it can get awfully complicated to understand. And if you don’t understand the subtleties in all the different terminology, it can be difficult to know exactly what the different organizations are promising. That’s important, because it’s up to us to hold them accountable.

But don’t worry. We’ll provide a crash course in climate change terminology so you can decipher the jargon. This will help you appreciate the similarities and differences between environmental terms. And you’ll be surprised to find that some terms that sound negative are actually positive.

Keep reading, and before you know it, you’ll be able to talk about climate change like a pro.

Comparing Popular Environmental Terms

Net Zero vs Carbon Neutral

Let’s start with net zero and carbon neutral. You hear both these terms a lot, especially as the UN states we must reach net zero by 2050 in order to halt the global rise in temperatures (already 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels). 

But what does it mean, net zero?

Net zero is the point where the amount of greenhouse gases (most specifically carbon dioxide) emitted by humans into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount removed. Net zero can be confusing as many people use the term to refer to different things, not just greenhouse gas emissions. People use it to refer to energy, too, like when we talk about net zero homes.

But one of the key things to pay attention to regarding net zero emissions is whether that refers to just carbon emissions or all greenhouse gas emissions. Obviously, being net zero on all greenhouse gas emissions is better than just carbon emissions. But carbon emissions linger longer in the atmosphere than other gases and account for a greater percentage of our total greenhouse gas emissions. So people often focus on carbon to the exclusion of other emissions.

That’s where carbon neutral comes in. Carbon neutral always refers simply to carbon emissions. And in a sense, it is the same as net zero carbon emissions. The amount of carbon dioxide released is balanced by how much is removed (usually with carbon sequestering).

If net zero is what we are looking to achieve, carbon neutral is how we achieve it. We use carbon neutral to describe an entity, like a business or a product, that engages in practices to offset its carbon emissions. These carbon offsets involve funding environmental projects that help sequester carbon and create renewable energy. 

Photo of a brown cork background with the bright green words "carbon neutral" and a drawing of the earth with a checkmark. Carbon neutral is one of the environmental terms we need to understand.
Businesses that are carbon neutral take care to remove the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that they produce.

Net Zero vs Zero Emissions

So now we understand that net zero is about balance. We need to balance the emissions going into the atmosphere with those that we remove. But how does that compare to zero emissions?

Zero emissions, or gross zero, would mean that we no longer have any greenhouse gas emissions. This goal is much harder to achieve. We can’t even imagine what a world with zero emissions would look like. Try for a minute. Think of a world that only used clean, renewable energy, where we didn’t release pollutants to poison our air and our soil, where cars didn’t spew exhaust fumes into the streets.

It seems more like a fairy tale than an achievable goal. So, while gross zero is obviously better for the planet, it makes more sense to work towards a goal that we can accomplish. Once we achieve net zero, we hope we will halt further global climate change. From there, we can work towards zero emissions and reversing the damage we have done.

Decarbonization vs Net Zero

Decarbonization refers to reducing carbon emissions created by humans within a specific time frame. The long-term goal of decarbonization is to reach zero human-made carbon emissions. Decarbonization is the process. We will have to switch from high carbon emitting fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources to achieve this process.

In contrast, net zero is the target or goal that we will reach as we engage in the process of decarbonization. We will reach net zero emissions by reducing our carbon emissions through decarbonization and sequestering carbon through natural and artificial means.

As we continue the decarbonization process past that point, we can begin to move along the pathway towards carbon negative, which we will discuss next.

Photo of small wooden blocks with letters spelling "decarbonized," one of many environmental terms to learn. A finger is tipping the letters d and e for emphasis.
Working together, we can get there!

Net Zero vs Carbon Negative

If net zero emissions is about balance, carbon negative takes it one step further. While it may sound bad, carbon negative is actually a good thing. Because of that, people often use the term “climate positive” instead. So what does it mean?

Carbon negative means going beyond net zero and actually removing more carbon emissions than are being produced. This is essential if we want to reverse, rather than simply halt, rising temperatures.

In January 2020, Microsoft announced their goal of being carbon negative by 2030. Beyond that, the aim is to offset all their historical carbon emissions by 2050. We need more companies striving to be carbon negative in order to achieve global net zero.

Carbon Negative vs Carbon Neutral

So now that we know what both carbon negative and carbon neutral mean, we can compare the terms and see which is better. While we might think carbon negative is bad at first glance, as we explained, the better term is climate positive. And this is why things can be confusing.

So, carbon negative is better than being carbon neutral. When a company or an entity is carbon negative, it is working to remove more carbon emissions than it’s creating. As we stated, this will help reverse the effects of climate change.

However, carbon neutral is the first step in the process of achieving carbon negative. Think about the progression. Currently, we create more carbon emissions than we remove. With work, we will begin removing as many emissions as we are creating. With even more work, in the form of cleaner energy and more carbon sequestration, we can tip the scales into the realm of carbon negative–and finally, be climate positive.

Photo of a hand with chalk writing on a chalkboard that has the words "Carbon neutral=Good, Carbon negative=Better"
You’re taking notes, right?

Carbon Free vs Carbon Neutral

Carbon free refers to a type of energy that doesn’t create any carbon emissions. While many carbon-free energy sources are renewable, like solar and wind, others, like nuclear, may have harmful environmental effects.

When referring to carbon neutral, as we mentioned before, carbon emissions are still created, but they are offset by positive environmental projects engaged in carbon sequestration.

Most carbon-free energy sources are more environmentally friendly than just engaging in carbon neutral business practices. However, be careful as carbon free can be used in “greenwashing” to make potentially environmentally damaging energy production, like large scale hydroelectric, sound more environmentally friendly.

What Is the Difference Between Zero And Net Zero?

We’ve talked about zero, net zero, negative, positive, and neutral, so I hope you are not too confused. Let’s wrap it up with a discussion of the difference between zero and net zero in the broadest sense.

Zero is just that—Zero, zip, zilch, nothing, nada, none. So when we talk about zero emissions or zero carbon, we mean just that. Not one ounce, iota, or drop of carbon. Zero means zero without any balancing acts or offsets. Truly, simply, nothing.

Net zero, on the other hand, is a more complicated concept. With net zero, be it emissions or energy, there are times you are positive, and there are times you are negative. You are never really at zero at all. But you are balanced over time.

People often use a bathtub analogy to describe net zero. If you want to keep the water at the same level, you need the same amount of water coming in from the tap as is leaving out the drain. Sometimes the water coming out of the tap may go a little faster, but as long as the drain keeps pace, overall, the water level won’t change. This keeps you at net zero change.

Now, if we were to use the same analogy for “zero,” then the tap would be off, and the drain would be closed. The water level would never get higher or lower. It wouldn’t need to be balanced. It just wouldn’t change.

As we’ve mentioned, net zero is a step on the path to zero, but it isn’t the end goal.

Final Thoughts

Climate change terms can be confusing. Not only are the differences often subtle, but many times terms are used incorrectly or can be deliberately misleading. And when you begin to consider the implications of discussing climate change in multiple languages, the complexity only multiplies!

However, there are some key environmental terms that are essential to know in order to understand and converse intelligently on climate change. Once you begin to understand the difference between zero and net zero, you will find much that may have been confusing before becomes clearer.

Another important distinction is between the different environmental terms relating to carbon. Some days it seems like whoever coined the term carbon negative was trying to be deliberately confusing. But as we explained, when talking about carbon, the more negative we are, the more positive it is for Planet Earth.

As climate change becomes a more pressing global issue, companies and countries may try to give the impression that they are working harder than they are to be environmentally conscious. By fully understanding all the terms, you can know who truly cares and who is simply engaging in greenwashing.

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