“Net zero” or  “real zero”,  what’s the difference?

There are numerous terms that relate to reducing emissions and overall environmental impact including “carbon positive”, “climate neutral”, “carbon neutral”, “real zero”, and “net zero”, making it difficult to determine what means what and which is the best approach for real climate solutions. 

“Net zero” has become one of the main buzzwords with nearly every company and governmental association nowadays expressing commitments to achieve net zero. However, current net zero plans fall short of what is required to stop the effects of global warming, leading one to question whether net zero is truly the optimal solution. Climate experts are beginning to urge companies instead to focus on real zero emissions, which stops emissions from being produced before they enter the atmosphere.

Carbon Positive- Business as Usual

In the U.S. alone, industry is responsible for nearly 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, most businesses are operating as they always have, continuing to emit large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere regardless of environmental impact. Though we are beginning to see a shift towards greener business practices and sweeping sustainability commitments, companies are almost all still carbon positive, meaning they produce emissions greater than zero. Any business that is carbon positive is contributing to climate change; however, strategic planning can help reduce carbon footprint and get closer to “true zero” emissions. We’ll discuss “true zero”, a.k.a. “real zero” throughout this article and highlight that, needless to say, “real zero” is a better goal for companies to aspire to.

Why Reduce Emissions?

The global temperature is 1.1°C warmer than it was in the 1800s due to rapid industrialization and associated emissions and waste. This has already led to unprecedented planetary conditions across the world with record-breaking temperatures, forest fires, species loss, and massive storm events, especially in areas with vulnerable populations. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it accelerates at the current rate and “business as usual” continues to be the norm. This will push the world into planetary conditions outside of those that have allowed society to build and thrive, putting all systems and life as we know it at risk. 

Net Zero Emissions by 2050

The Paris Agreement states that to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C, global emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Commitments made by the 193 countries that signed the Paris Agreement fall short of what is required. In order to get to net zero, all governments, especially the greatest carbon emitters, must take bold, immediate, and aggressive steps towards reducing emissions now. 

Current national action plans are projected to result in a 14% increase in global emissions by 2030 while a 45% decrease is required to keep warming below 1.5°C. Potentially irreversible effects have already been made to the planet, highlighting the importance to go a step further towards real zero.

What is Net Zero?

Net zero is the act of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible while remaining emissions are reabsorbed from the atmosphere by forests, oceans, and carbon sinks through carbon offsets.

Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are, in a way, a loophole for companies to continue to release the same amount of emissions into the atmosphere but still technically meet their emissions targets through tree planting or investing in forest restoration projects. Carbon offsets are used to convey a net climate benefit and are considered the same if an organization stops releasing emissions or promotes equal emissions reducing effects somewhere in the world. Though this does lead companies to consider their environmental impact and invest in emission-reducing activities, it doesn’t actually require a change in their emission-causing practices, resulting in a net canceling out of their emissions rather than a true reduction. Additionally, carbon offsets typically place the burden on already vulnerable communities.

Net Zero Emissions vs Carbon Neutral

Net zero and carbon neutral are generally the same practice; however, net zero relates to all emissions globally and carbon neutral relates specifically to CO2. Carbon neutral means that an emitter puts the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere that it removes. Both don’t necessarily actively make emissions worse, but they also are not actively making emissions better.

What is Real Zero?

Real zero or “true zero” means that zero emissions are created or released. It suggests that total emissions of a business have reached zero through reduction of emitting practices, carbon removal, and avoided emissions. Real zero requires a near complete transformation of how society currently produces, consumes, and lives – flipping everything to being more efficient, environmentally conscious, and less wasteful.

Climate positive

Climate positive means that the total emissions of a company are less than they emit into the atmosphere. Businesses can operate as climate positive by removing carbon or avoiding emitting to begin with.

Climate Neutral

Climate neutral is essentially the same as climate positive, meaning the climate impact is zero. Companies that are climate neutral reduce their emissions to zero and end all practices that contribute to environmental degradation, excess waste, and resource depletion. 

Carbon Negative

Carbon negative means that the total carbon emissions of a company fall below zero. If a company is carbon negative, they don’t emit into the atmosphere at all and they engage or invest in additional global emission-reducing activities.

These terms are slightly confusing marketing terms used to describe the same thing: real zero emissions. Each describes the best emission performance a company could have, removing more emissions than they produce from the atmosphere or stopping them from being released to begin with.

10 Steps to Real Zero Emissions

Real zero is ideal; however, we are a long way away with our current way of operating. Real zero means stopping emissions before they are put into the atmosphere, something that is nearly impossible now since even the greenest technology has embedded emissions associated with the manufacturing of the technology. To reach real zero we must make a rapid transition to renewable energy and set aggressive targets to achieve zero emissions. 

Net zero goals are the first step toward collective action; however, it is not enough. Companies should begin by setting goals to become more carbon neutral and continue to optimize their plan to become carbon negative as more technologies and solutions become available.  

Here are the ten steps you can take to get your business as close as possible to real zero:

  1. Commit to meeting the designated net zero goals mandated by the Paris Agreement
    • Use this as a starting point, commit to net zero by 2050 and follow the next steps to continue to improve your commitments.
  2. Use a carbon footprint calculator to get a baseline
    • There are numerous carbon footprint calculators on the market, Green Business Bureau offers a carbon footprint calculator as a part of its membership.
    • Understand your current carbon footprint and set quarterly goals for lower levels.
  3. Identify areas in operations and manufacturing that may release unintended emissions
    • Make sure emissions are accounted for in all areas of operations from manufacturing to building practices to employee transportation. Identifying the full picture of your emissions will help you plan initiatives to reduce it.
  4. Become Green Business Certified to formalize the sustainability plan
    • Select a Green Business Certification program.
    • Create a green team to lead a green business certification process like Green Business Bureau’s.
    • Identify additional areas to reduce your carbon footprint and improve your certification level.
  5. Create a green culture
    • The Green Business Bureau offers a library of initiatives surrounding creating a green culture. The best way to do so is by engaging employees and making them feel they are a part of a purpose they believe in. 
  6. Identify high-priority sustainability initiatives and goals 
    • Transitioning to renewable energy is the most important and effective initiative to reach real zero emissions.
    • Identify areas in your operations that cause the most environmental impact and select initiatives to reduce it. 
  7. Evaluate progress quarterly, adjust goals based on performance
    • Set standards for progress and ensure they are being met. Share results publicly to avoid greenwashing and be held accountable to meet your goals.
  8. Set increasingly aggressive commitments
    • As your zero emissions journey continues, set increasing commitments based on the results you have already seen and the progressing state of the environment. It may require you to act faster than you have been moving. Re-evaluate how you can improve and what is needed to reach real zero. 
  9. Communicate milestones
    • Communicating your achievements with the public will set you apart as a sustainable company and keep you and your employees excited about your progress.
    • Thoroughly communicate your goal to become real zero and share with the public when you have reached each benchmark, moving from carbon positive to net zero to carbon neutral to carbon negative and real zero!
  10. Become a real zero emitter
    • Validate your results using both a carbon footprint calculator and a trusted 3rd party like Green Business Bureau.

Aim for Real Zero and Don’t Settle for Net Zero

There are numerous buzzwords out there including “carbon positive”, “net zero”, “carbon neutral”, “carbon negative”, and “real zero”, that can cause leaders attempting to be more sustainable to be confused about where to even begin.

Net zero is a necessary first step for companies and countries alike to become more environmentally friendly; however, it is not the optimal end result. Carbon offsets are a favorite in today’s business world to enable companies to continue to emit the same amount while being touted as sustainable for planting trees or funding reforestation efforts but these efforts fall short of actually reducing emissions. 

Organizations must strive to reach real or true zero emissions to be truly sustainable and do their best part to keep the planet in conditions that will allow society and all life to thrive. 

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