Carbon neutrality refers to achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions. This can be done by balancing emissions of carbon dioxide with its removal (often through carbon offsetting) or by eliminating emissions from society (the transition to the "post-carbon economy"). It is used in the context of carbon dioxide-releasing processes associated with transportation, energy production, agriculture, and industry.
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Although the term "carbon neutral" is used, a carbon footprint also includes other greenhouse gases, usually carbon-based, measured in terms of their carbon dioxide equivalence. The term climate-neutral reflects the broader inclusiveness of other greenhouse gases in climate change, even if CO2 is the most abundant. The term "net zero" is increasingly used to describe a broader and more comprehensive commitment to decarbonization and climate action, moving beyond carbon neutrality by including more activities under the scope of indirect emissions, and often including a science-based target on emissions reduction, as opposed to relying solely on offsetting.
In December 2020, five years after the Paris Agreement, the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres warned that the commitments made by countries in Paris were not sufficient and were not respected. He has urged all other countries to declare climate emergencies until carbon neutrality is reached.
Balancing carbon dioxide emissions with carbon offsets — the process of reducing or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make up for emissions elsewhere. If the total greenhouse gasses emitted is equal to the total amount avoided or removed, then the two effects cancel each other out and the net emissions are 'neutral'.
Reducing carbon emissions can be done by moving towards energy sources and industry processes that produce less greenhouse gases, thereby transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Shifting towards the use of renewable energy such as hydro, wind, geothermal, and solar power, as well as nuclear power reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Although both renewable and non-renewable energy production produce carbon emissions in some form, renewable sources produce negligible to almost zero carbon emissions. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy would also mean making changes to current industrial and agricultural processes to reduce carbon emissions, for example, diet changes to livestock such as cattle can potentially reduce methane production by 40%. Carbon projects and emissions trading are often used to reduce carbon emissions, and carbon dioxide can even sometimes be prevented from entering the atmosphere entirely (such as by carbon scrubbing).
One way to implement carbon-neutral products is by making these products cheaper and more cost effective than carbon positive fuels. Various companies have pledged to become carbon neutral or negative by 2050, some of which include: Microsoft, Delta Air Lines, BP, IKEA, and BlackRock. However, without cheaper carbon-neutral products, companies are less likely to switch over to renewable sources.
Carbon neutrality is usually achieved by combining the following steps, although these may vary depending whether the strategy is being implemented by individuals, companies, organizations, cities, regions, or countries:
In the case of individuals, decision-making is likely to be straightforward, but for more complex institutions it usually requires political leadership and popular agreement that the effort is worth making.
Counting and analyzing
Counting and analyzing the emissions that need to be eliminated, and how it can be done, is an important step in the process of achieving carbon neutrality, as it establishes the priorities for where action needs to be taken and progress can begin being monitored. This can be achieved through a greenhouse gas inventory that aims to answer questions such as:
- Which operations, activities and units should be targeted?
- Which sources should be included (see section Direct and indirect emissions)?
- Who is responsible for which emissions?
- Which gases should be included?
For individuals, carbon calculators simplify compiling an inventory. Typically they measure electricity consumption in kWh, the amount and type of fuel used to heat water and warm the house, and how many kilometers an individual drives, flies and rides in different vehicles. Individuals may also set the limits of the system they are concerned with, for example, whether they want to balance out their personal greenhouse gas emissions, their household emissions, or their company's.
There are plenty of carbon calculators available online, which vary significantly in the parameters they measure. Some, for example, factor in only cars, aircraft and household energy use. Others cover household waste or leisure interests as well. In some circumstances, going beyond carbon neutral and becoming carbon negative (usually after a certain length of time taken to reach carbon breakeven) is an objective.
In starting to work towards climate neutrality, businesses and local administrations can make use of an environmental (or sustainability) management system or EMS established by the international standard ISO 14001 (developed by the International Organization for Standardization). Another EMS framework is EMAS, the European Eco Management and Audit Scheme, used by numerous companies throughout the EU. Many local authorities apply the management system to certain sectors of their administration or certify their whole operations.
One of the strongest arguments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is that it will often save money. Examples of possible actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are:
- Limiting energy usage and emissions from transportation (walking, using bicycles or public transport, avoiding flying, using low-energy vehicles), as well as from buildings, equipment, animals and processes.
- Obtaining electricity and other forms of energy from a low carbon energy sources.
- Electrification: using electrical energy, ideally from non-emitting sources, rather than combustion. For example, in transportation (e.g. electric vehicles and electric trains) and heating (e.g. heat pumps and electric heating).
The use of Carbon offsets aims to neutralize a certain volume of greenhouse gas emissions by funding projects which should cause an equivalent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else, such as tree planting. Under the premise “First reduce what you can, then offset the remainder”, offsetting can be done by supporting a responsible carbon project, or by buying carbon offsets or carbon credits.
In 2015, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), following the mandate of the CDM Executive board, launched a dedicated website where organizations, companies, but also private person are able to offset their footprint (https://offset.climateneutralnow.org/) with the aim of facilitating everyone's participation in the process of promoting sustainability.
Offsetting is sometimes seen as a charged and contentious issue. For example, James Hansen describes offsets as "modern day indulgences, sold to an increasingly carbon-conscious public to absolve their climate sins." This may also be interpreted as greenwashing, especially in the case of most company commitments, which do not include actionable goals and schedules that implicate that the 'net-zero' emission goals are more than good publicity.
Evaluation and repeating
This phase includes evaluation of the results and compilation of a list of suggested improvements, with results documented and reported, so that experience gained of what does (and does not) work is shared with those who can put it to good use. Science and technology move on, regulations become tighter, the standards people demand go up. So the second cycle will go further than the first, and the process will continue, each successive phase building on and improving on what went before.
Being carbon neutral is increasingly seen as good corporate or state social responsibility and a growing list of corporations and states are announcing dates for when they intend to become fully neutral. Events such as the G8 Summit and organizations like the World Bank are also using offset schemes to become carbon neutral. Artists like The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd have made albums or tours carbon neutral.
Direct and indirect emissions
To be considered carbon neutral, an organization must reduce its carbon footprint to zero. Determining what to include in the carbon footprint depends upon the organization and the standards they are following.
Generally, direct emissions sources must be reduced and offset completely, while indirect emissions from purchased electricity can be reduced with renewable energy purchases.
Direct emissions include all pollution from manufacturing, company owned vehicles and reimbursed travel, livestock and any other source that is directly controlled by the owner. Indirect emissions include all emissions that result from the use or purchase of a product. For instance, the direct emissions of an airline are all the jet fuel that is burned, while the indirect emissions include manufacture and disposal of airplanes, all the electricity used to operate the airline's office, and the daily emissions from employee travel to and from work. In another example, the power company has a direct emission of greenhouse gas, while the office that purchases it considers it an indirect emission.
Carbon is used as both a source of electricity and a feedstock in energy-intensive industries, making decarbonization impossible. If CO2 emissions and sources are to be captured and stopped from entering the atmosphere, an alternate chemical solution must be formulated that achieves the desired output while not releasing CO2 as a by-product.
Simplification of standards and definitions
Carbon neutral fuels are those that neither contribute to nor reduce the amount of carbon into the atmosphere. Before an agency can certify an organization or individual as carbon neutral, it is important to specify whether indirect emissions are included in the Carbon Footprint calculation. Most Voluntary Carbon neutral certifiers such as Standard Carbon in the US, require both direct and indirect sources to be reduced and offset. As an example, for an organization to be certified carbon neutral by Standard Carbon, it must offset all direct and indirect emissions from travel by 1 lb CO2e per passenger mile, and all non-electricity direct emissions 100%. Indirect electrical purchases must be equalized either with offsets, or renewable energy purchase. This standard differs slightly from the widely used World Resource Institute and may be easier to calculate and apply.
Much of the confusion in carbon neutral standards can be attributed to the number of voluntary carbon standards which are available. For organizations looking at which carbon offsets to purchase, knowing which standards are robust, credible and permanent is vital in choosing the right carbon offsets and projects to get involved in. Some of the main standards in the voluntary market include; The Verified Carbon Standard, The Gold Standard, The American Carbon Registry, The Climate Action Reserve, and Plan Vivo. In addition companies can purchase Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) which result from mitigated carbon emissions from UNFCCC approved projects for voluntary purposes. The concept of shared resources also reduces the volume of carbon a particular organization has to offset, with all upstream and downstream emissions the responsibility of other organizations or individuals. If all organizations and individuals were involved then this would not result in any double accounting.
Regarding terminology in UK, in December 2011 the Advertising Standards Authority (in an ASA decision which was upheld by its Independent Reviewer, Sir Hayden Phillips) controversially ruled that no manufactured product can be marketed as "zero-carbon", because carbon was inevitably emitted during its manufacture. This decision was made in relation to a solar panel system whose embodied carbon was repaid during 1.2 years of use and it appears to mean that no buildings or manufactured products can legitimately be described as zero carbon in its jurisdiction.
Being carbon neutral is increasingly seen as good corporate or state social responsibility, and a growing list of corporations, cities and states are announcing dates for when they intend to become fully neutral. Many countries have also announced dates by which they want to be carbon neutral, with many of them targeting the year 2050. However, setting an earlier date (i.e. 2025, 2030, or 2045) may be considered to send out a stronger signal internationally. Also, delaying significant action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is increasingly being considered to not be a financially sound idea.
Companies and organizations
The original Climate Neutral Network was an Oregon-based non-profit organization founded by Sue Hall and incorporated in 1999 to persuade companies that being climate neutral was potentially cost saving as well as environmentally sustainable. It developed both the Climate Neutral Certification and Climate Cool brand name with key stakeholders such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, The Nature Conservancy, the Rocky Mountain Institute, Conservation International, and the World Resources Institute and succeeded in enrolling the 2002 Winter Olympics to compensate for its associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Few companies have actually attained Climate Neutral Certification, applying to a rigorous review process and establishing that they have achieved absolute net zero or better impact on the world's climate. Another reason that companies have difficulty in attaining the Climate Neutral Certification is due the lack clear guidelines on what it means to make a carbon neutral development. Shaklee Corporation became the first Climate Neutral certified company in April 2000. The company employs a variety of investments, and offset activities, including tree-planting, use of solar energy, methane capture in abandoned mines and its manufacturing processes. Climate Neutral Business Network states that it certified Dave Matthews Band's concert tour as Climate Neutral. The Christian Science Monitor criticized the use of NativeEnergy, a for-profit company that sells offset credits to businesses and celebrities like Dave Matthews.
Salt Spring Coffee became carbon neutral by lowering emissions through reducing long-range trucking and using bio-diesel fuel in delivery trucks, upgrading to energy efficient equipment and purchasing carbon offsets from its offset provider, Offsetters. The company claims to the first carbon neutral coffee sold in Canada. Salt Spring Coffee was recognized by the David Suzuki Foundation in their 2010 report Doing Business in a New Climate.
Under the leadership of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations pledged to work towards climate neutrality in December 2007. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced it was becoming climate neutral in 2008 and established a Climate Neutral Network to promote the idea in February 2008.
Events such as the G8 Summit and organizations like the World Bank are also using offset schemes to become carbon neutral. Artists like The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd have made albums or tours carbon neutral, while Live Earth says that its seven concerts held on 7 July 2007 were the largest carbon neutral public event in history.
The Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games were the first carbon neutral Games in history through a large partnership with the carbon offset provider, Offsetters.
Buildings are the largest single contributor to the production of greenhouse gases. The American Institute of Architects 2030 Commitment is a voluntary program for AIA member firms and other entities in the built environment that asks these organizations to pledge to design all their buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030.
In 2010, architectural firm HOK worked with energy and daylighting consultant The Weidt Group to design a 170,735-square-foot (15,861.8 m2) net zero carbon emissions Class A office building prototype in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
In 2020, BlackRock, the world's largest investment firm, announced that it would begin making decisions with climate change and sustainability in mind, and begin exiting assets that it believed represented a "high sustainablilty-related risk". Activists have accused the company of greenwashing, as it still has a considerable amount of money invested in coal companies. In CEO Larry Fink's 2021 annual letter, however, he further pushed for businesses to begin laying out explicit plans on how they will be carbon neutral by 2050.
Countries and nations
Two countries have achieved or surpassed carbon neutrality:
|Andorra||2050||Submission to UNFCCC|
|Argentina||2050||Submission to UNFCCC|
|Australia||2050–2100||Pledged towards the Paris agreement|
|Brazil||2060||Submission to UNFCCC|
|Costa Rica||2050||Policy position|
|Croatia||2050||Statement of intent|
|Ethiopia||2025 or 2030||Policy position|
|European Union||2050||Political agreement|
|Fiji||2050||Pledged towards the Paris agreement|
|Grenada||2050||Submission to UNFCCC|
|Japan||2050||Statement of intent|
|Kazakhstan||2060||Submission to UNFCCC|
|Maldives||2030||Submission to UNFCCC|
|Marshall Islands||2050||Pledged towards the Paris agreement|
|Nepal||2050||Pledged towards the Paris agreement|
|Norway||2050 (actual)||Policy position|
|Panama||2050||Submission to UNFCCC|
|Singapore||2050–2100||Submission to UNFCCC|
|South Africa||2050||Policy position|
|South Korea||2050||Policy position|
|Ukraine||ASAP||Statement of intent|
|United States||2050||Statement of intent|
|Uruguay||2030||Pledged towards the Paris agreement|
|Vatican City||2050||Submission to UNFCCC|
In June 2011, the Canadian Province of British Columbia announced they had officially become the first provincial/state jurisdiction in North America to achieve carbon neutrality in public sector operations: Every school, hospital, university, Crown corporation, and government office measured, reported, and purchased carbon offsets on all of their 2010 Greenhouse Gas emissions as required under legislation. Local Governments across B.C. are also beginning to declare Carbon Neutrality, including the Regional District of Mount Waddington on Vancouver Island, whose indoor ice arena, the Chilton Regional Arena, is now carbon neutral and rely on solely on electricity from flooding their ice to mowing the grass. The province intends to accelerate the deployment of natural gas vehicles. Under the LiveSmart BC initiative, natural gas furnaces and water heaters receive cash back thereby promoting the burning of fossil fuel in the province. The province states that an important part of new natural gas production will come from the Horn River basin where about 500 million tonnes of CO2 will be released into the atmosphere.
On September 24, 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to make Canada carbon neutral by 2050 if re-elected. On October 21, 2019, Trudeau was re-elected, and in December 2019, the Canadian government formally announced its goal for Canada to be carbon neutral by 2050. In its speech from the throne, which was delivered on September 23, 2020, the federal government pledged to legislate its goal of making Canada carbon neutral by 2050.
Costa Rica aims to be fully carbon neutral by at least 2050. There are plans to do it even faster, namely by 2021 (the 200th anniversary of its independence) In 2004, 46.7% of Costa Rica's primary energy came from renewable sources, while 94% of its electricity was generated from hydroelectric power, wind farms and geothermal energy in 2006. A 3.5% tax on gasoline in the country is used for payments to compensate landowners for growing trees and protecting forests and its government is making further plans for reducing emissions from transport, farming and industry.
Samsø island in Denmark, with a population of 4200, based on wind-generated electricity and biomass-based district heating currently generate extra wind power and export the electricity to compensate for petro-fueled vehicles. There are future hopes of using electric or biofuel vehicles.
On 27 June 2019, the French National Assembly voted into law the first article in a climate and energy package that sets goals for France to cut its greenhouse gas emissions and go carbon-neutral by 2050 in line with the 2015 Paris climate agreement. This was approved by the French Senate on 18 July 2019.
Iceland is also moving towards climate neutrality. Iceland generates over 99% of its electricity from renewable sources, namely hydroelectricity (approximately 80%) and geothermal (approximately 20%). No other nation uses such a high proportion of renewable energy resources. Over 99% of electricity production and almost 80% of total energy production comes from hydropower and geothermal. In February 2008, Costa Rica, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway were the first four countries to join the Climate Neutral Network, an initiative led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to catalyze global action towards low carbon economies and societies.
Reykjavík aims to be carbon neutral by 2040.
The ex-president of the Maldives has pledged to make his country carbon-neutral within a decade by moving to wind and solar energy. The Maldives, a country consisting of very low-lying islands, would be one of the first countries to be submerged due to sea level rise. The Maldives presided over the foundation of the Climate Vulnerable Forum.
On November 7, 2019, New Zealand passed a bill requiring the country to be net zero for all greenhouse gases by 2050 (with the exception of biogenic methane, with plans to reduce that by 24–47% below 2017 levels by 2050).
On April 19, 2007, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg announced to the Labour Party annual congress that Norway's greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 10 percent more than its Kyoto commitment by 2012, and that the government had agreed to achieve emission cuts of 30% by 2020. He also proposed that Norway should become carbon neutral by 2050, and called upon other rich countries to do likewise. This carbon neutrality would be achieved partly by carbon offsetting, a proposal criticized by Greenpeace, who also called on Norway to take responsibility for the 500m tonnes of emissions caused by its exports of oil and gas. World Wildlife Fund Norway also believes that the purchase of carbon offsets is unacceptable, saying 'it is a political stillbirth to believe that China will quietly accept that Norway will buy climate quotas abroad'. The Norwegian environmental activist Bellona Foundation believes that the prime minister was forced to act due to pressure from anti-European Union members of the coalition government, and called the announcement 'visions without content'. In January 2008 the Norwegian government went a step further and declared a goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. But the government has not been specific about any plans to reduce emissions at home; the plan is based on buying carbon offsets from other countries, and very little has actually been done to reduce Norway's emissions, apart from a very successful policy for electric vehicles
Sweden aims to become carbon neutral by 2045. The vision is that net greenhouse gas emissions should be zero. The overall objective is that the increase in global temperature should be limited to two degrees, and that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stabilizes at a maximum of 400 ppm.
In July 2007, Vatican City announced a plan to become the first carbon-neutral state in the world, following the politics of the Pope to eliminate global warming. The goal would be reached through the donation of the Vatican Climate Forest in Hungary. The forest is to be sized to offset the year's carbon dioxide emissions. However, no trees have actually been planted As of 2008. The company KlimaFa is no longer in existence and hasn't fulfilled its promises. In November 2008, the city state also installed and put into operation 2,400 solar panels on the roof of the Paul VI Centre audience hall.
As recommended by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) the government has legally committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the United Kingdom by 2050 and the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) has said it would be affordable. A range of techniques will be required including carbon sinks (greenhouse gas removal) in order to counterbalance emissions from agriculture and aviation. These carbon sinks might include reforestation, habitat restoration, soil carbon sequestration, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage and even direct air capture. The UK government has recently linked attainment of net zero targets as a potential mechanism for improved air quality as a co-benefit. In 2020 the UK government estimated that eliminating fossil fuels for home heating and transportation could lead to a tripling of demand for electricity.
Scotland has set a 2045 target. The islands of Orkney have significant wind and marine energy resources, and renewable energy has recently come into prominence. Although Orkney is connected to the mainland, it generates over 100% of its net power from renewables. This comes mainly from wind turbines situated right across Orkney
Carbon neutral initiatives
Many initiatives seek to assist individuals, businesses and states in reducing their carbon footprint or achieving climate neutrality. These include
- Website neutralization project CO2 stats
- Website neutralization project
- Climate Neutral Network
- Caring for Climate
- Together campaign
- Carbon Neutrality Coalition
- Pathzero - Smart emission management platform for businesses to go carbon neutral
- Leader for Climate Action
- GreenWise - Complete and simple SaaS platform and consultancy service for your business to go carbon neutral.
- GreenLife - Daily tips on sustainability for individuals to become carbon neutral.
- #2050challenge by Royal Society – Sharing research by scientists about reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
Although there is currently no international certification scheme for carbon or climate neutrality, some countries have established national certification schemes. Examples include Norwegian Eco-Lighthouse Program and the Australian government's National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS). In the private sector, organizations such as ClimatePartner can, for a fee, allow companies from many sectors to offset their carbon emissions using techniques like reforestation. These companies can then claim climate neutral status and even use the title online. However, there is no international clarity around these certifications and their validity.
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Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor was not available for an interview, but his office issued a statement reaffirming the Federal Government's climate change policy.
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