Defining Carbon Emission Commitments: Carbon Neutral, Net Zero, and Carbon Negative

In our previous posts, we have explained to you what carbon footprint is, the distinction between Mandatory & Voluntary Carbon Market, Carbon Tax and other concepts. Today, we would like to roll back a little bit and clarify the most common confusion: What is the difference between carbon neutral, net zero, and carbon negative? Let’s delve into the complexities of these claims.

Recently, Canada Post has committed to carbon-neutral shipping of all domestic parcels within the Country (Canada Post, 2023). With Canada Post’s path toward net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, every ton of greenhouse gas that has been emitted in delivering domestic ground parcels has been made carbon-neutral through the purchase of high-quality, accredited carbon offsets that remove one ton of these greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. The Great Bear Forest Carbon Project is the carbon offset program that Canada Post supports, which focuses on protecting the forest from logging, developing carbon stocks and reducing emissions brought by harvesting, road development and other forestry operations (Canada Post, 2023).

As the United Nations enforces climate change as a pressing issue that must be acted upon immediately, several companies have made fervent commitments to reducing carbon emissions. But what do they mean when they say they will go carbon-neutral, commit to becoming net zero or declare themselves carbon negative?

Carbon Neutral

Going carbon-neutral means that a business has measured its amount of carbon emission in all its operational activities and offset these through the removal of carbon in the atmosphere. An example would be buying carbon credits from the voluntary carbon market to compensate for the emissions produced or investing in carbon offset projects just like Canada Post. As individuals, we can also commit to becoming carbon-neutral by developing sustainable habits such as recycling packaging to offset the carbon released by our home’s power usage.

Net Zero

Net Zero is similar to carbon neutrality but on a broader scale. It also refers to balancing out the greenhouse gases emitted and removed from the atmosphere but with a defined target, whether it is keeping the earth’s temperature within 1.5°C or reducing emissions by 30% by a specific date. Generally, all carbon-neutral initiatives are leading toward a net zero biosphere. The Government of Canada has a plan in place to reach Net Zero Emissions by 2050 with its commitment to reduce emissions by 40-45% from its 2005 levels by 2030 (, 2023). Some initiatives include the energy transition from coal-sourced energy to renewable energy and clean technology mandates among companies operating in the country.

Carbon Negative

Declaring carbon negative is a scheme where companies remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that it emits. There are mainly three ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere:

1. Nature-based solutions: Reforestation and Afforestation is one way to draw out carbon from the air. Trees and other marine life absorb carbon to sustain life (IEA, 2020).

2. Enhanced Natural Processes: These include land management techniques to store carbon in soil (IEA, 2020). As our article on the voluntary carbon market mentions, biochar is a form of refined agricultural waste that stores CO2 for hundreds of years and increases soil fertility when used as an additive. If most farms use biochar as a supplement, they can take in significant amounts of carbon in the atmosphere and store it underground for centuries.

3. Technology Solutions: Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture are scalable operations that remove gas emissions. BECCS, as defined by the International Energy Agency, is the capture of CO2 from an energy pathway and is permanently stored (2020). Direct air capture technologies are those that obtain carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Currently, Canada is working on a Bioenergy with Carbon Capture Project located in Ottawa, while a Direct Air Capture Plant has been operating in Canada.

With all the carbon claims and commitments by companies, we must also look out for greenwashing activities or developing false claims as a marketing ploy to attract consumers. As individuals concerned for the environment, we should call for transparency among businesses on their programs to reduce carbon emissions and inquire about how we can support their sustainable activities.

So, which companies do you know have committed to net zero emissions, carbon neutrality or carbon negative? What’s your contribution to becoming carbon neutral?