Carbon neutrality, greenhouse gas neutrality and climate neutrality – what is the difference?

Author Ulrike Schneeweiß

In the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the signatory states pledged to balance the emission and removal of greenhouse gases by 2050. This means that human activities only release as many greenhouse gases as can be removed from the atmosphere by natural or technical means. This is the balance referred to by the terms carbon neutrality, greenhouse gas neutrality and climate neutrality.

A company, or an entire country, can achieve carbon or greenhouse gas neutrality in two ways: It can reduce emissions or avoid them in the first place, and it can take appropriate measures to compensate for unavoidable residual emissions. Top priority should always be given to avoiding emissions. To offset unavoidable CO2 emissions, countries can plant new forests or restore wetlands, which absorb CO2 and store it for long periods. Companies can also use carbon capture technologies to extract CO2 from the flue gases emitted by industrial plants so that it cannot reach the atmosphere.

The term carbon neutrality addresses only CO2 emissions, while greenhouse gas neutrality means that other gases harmful to the climate, such as methane and nitrous oxide, are not emitted at all or their emissions are offset. However, so far there is no technology for filtering methane and nitrous oxide out of flue gases as there is for CO2.

Strictly speaking, climate neutrality would mean other effects are also taken into account, for example, that no climate-damaging changes to land and soil are caused.

In reality, many products today feature logos that would have us believe they have been produced in a “climate-neutral” fashion. But often all it means is that the production-related CO2 emissions have been offset; the manufacturers pay money for the offsetting measures. From an accounting perspective, measures that avoid emissions but do not actively help to remove CO2 from the atmosphere are also considered to be offsets. The reasoning behind this is that the amount of CO2 emitted at one place is not emitted at another place, so net emissions are zero. As a result, the terms carbon-neutral, greenhouse gas-neutral and climate-neutral do not mean that a product or an organization causes no emissions that impact the climate.

Even when countries, organizations and businesses set targets to become carbon-neutral, greenhouse gas-neutral or climate-neutral within a certain period, they are not always clear in their use of these terms. While some countries and organizations speak of carbon neutrality but also account for other greenhouse gases, others speak of climate neutrality although in reality they only offset their CO2 emissions.

To limit global warming, what is needed most is a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists are now pointing out that the ambiguous use of neutrality terms makes it more difficult to formulate clear collective goals. For this reason, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is considering whether to stop using the term “climate-neutral.”

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