What’s the Difference Between Net-Zero, Carbon Neutral, Carbon Negative, Carbon Positive, and a Sustainability Footprint?


Net Zero

If the world follows plans to achieve net-zero, will the state of the world be as we hoped? This is more so a question to explore and discuss, than a question to find an immediate answer. Supporting net-zero initiatives that stop society from piling up problematic amounts of carbon in the atmosphere does benefit our planet. Actively placing new policies and technologies to reduce emissions and waste does prevent excessive pollution. Among conversations these days, people wonder about doing more to proactively see our planet thrive.

Pollution is so intertwined with our current way of living, that some believe net-zero by 2030 will only address a part of the damage done to the earth over the years. Imagine your phone battery is at 1%, but you really need to make a call. You charge your battery just enough for the call, maybe to 20%, then take your phone off the charger. You achieved the goal of making the call, but you’ll soon need to charge your phone again to keep your phone on.

Coming up behind net-zero, people are considering what it means to proactively prevent unnecessary pollution. A lot of zero waste and regenerative initiatives are influenced by the notion of stopping pollution from being generated in the first place or at least stopping as much as possible. Net-zero can account for some of the pollution created in the lifetime of the current generations, but what about what was already piled on before then?

What’s the difference between net-zero, carbon neutral, carbon negative, and carbon positive?

Instead of ending initiatives at net-zero, companies and organizations are investing in carbon-negative and carbon positive campaigns. Sustainability communications use phrases such as net-zero, carbon neutral, carbon negative, and carbon positive often in the latest update on sustainable development. The phrasing is meant to draw attention to environmentally friendly practices so that the public can also understand what’s going on. Let’s clarify their differences in case you’re curious.

Here’s the good news: The phrases aren’t much different. Taking a closer look, the phrases net-zero, carbon neutral, carbon negative, and carbon positive can be separated into synonyms. Net-zero and carbon-neutral both refer to doing an action that will absorb the same amount of carbon as another action added to the atmosphere. Simple math: If you put 5 apples in a basket and take 5 apples out of the basket, there are 0 apples left in the basket. The goal is for the actions to cancel each other out and return to a neutral starting point.

Carbon negative and carbon positive both refer to doing an action that will absorb more than the amount of carbon another action added to the atmosphere. Is anyone else getting school-days flashbacks of when math went from “2+2 = 4” to being abstract assumptions and proofs? Stay with us here. 

Carbon negative relates to the traditional number line with negative numbers on the left, zero (“0”)  in the center, and positive numbers on the right. The imagery is about proactively reversing decades of adding carbon to the atmosphere, therefore moving past a neutral state and absorbing more carbon than an action added.

Carbon positive relates more toward terminology and jargon. Humans are naturally more likely to associate positive outcomes with “positive” terms. This phrase emphasizes carbon positive as being connected to doing something positive for the planet and that action is doing more than, or in “addition” to, the bare minimum of creating a neutral outcome.

Let’s go back to our simple apple example. You have a basket that is meant to carry 12 apples, but you manage to pile 17 apples in the basket. 

Scenario 1: If you take out 5 apples, that is a net-zero/ carbon neutral action since 12 apples are left in the basket afterward. (* you added 5 over the limit, and take 5 out to make up for it.)

Scenario 2: If you take out 8 apples, that is a carbon-negative/ carbon positive action since 9 apples are left in the basket afterward. (* you added 5 over the limit, and take 8 out so the amount isn’t at capacity.)

See, simple math. (Hint: a dash of sarcasm)

What is a Sustainability Footprint?

The idea of increasing your sustainability footprint focuses on finding more ways to build sustainable practices in your life, or operations in business. Meaning that increasing your sustainability footprint is similar to a carbon-negative/ carbon positive initiative, but includes other aspects of sustainability. A sustainability footprint gives a picture of evidence of your sustainable efforts and refers to proactively doing more than expected to address environmental concerns.

Rather than putting all attention on reducing your carbon footprint, we suggest shifting your perspective to increasing your sustainability footprint. Finding new ways to add efforts to your sustainability journey comes much easier when seen as the adventure you have to gain. Your carbon footprint is inevitably reduced when making consistent actions to benefit the environment. On top of this, focusing on benefiting the environment prevents people from thinking a neutral carbon footprint is where sustainability stops in these modern times; or like our phone example earlier, it stops people from only charging their sustainability phone battery to 20% to make one call.

What will you do to increase your sustainability footprint?

As you can tell, there’s a reason people are having conversations about going beyond net-zero. We know it can feel like everything is always changing so fast. Don’t get overwhelmed with information or perspectives coming in. Do what you can to engage with sustainability, and take chances to explore different discussions going on in the space when you have the capacity for it.
When you search for sustainable resources these days, you’ll see many options to get your sustainable journey started. Blogs, podcasts, and social media posts are out there showing different ways to include sustainability personally and professionally. People Helping People is currently working on sustainable product development in a crafts-related field. We are on our own Journey Into Sustainable Innovation for social entrepreneurs and are sharing what we find out along the way. Keep checking in with us!

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