We hear these terms all the time, but if you had to explain them to a friend over coffee, how well could you do it?

To communicate these concepts well, we need to understand them clearly ourselves.

Let’s get into it.

Carbon Neutral vs. Zero Carbon

solar panels being inspected by a renewable energy professional

Carbon Neutral: Refers to achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference.

The key word to remember is “net.” Think of it like breaking even. Whatever you’re making or doing, you capture or offset as much carbon as you produce to make or do that thing.

For example, a building with solar panels that sends renewable energy to the grid that is equal to the energy it uses from the grid can be considered “net zero” energy or carbon neutral.

Zero Carbon: This is a case when no carbon was emitted from the get-go, so no carbon needs to be captured or offset.

For example, a household or commercial building that is off-grid, running entirely on solar, and using zero fossil fuels can label it’s energy “zero carbon.”

What Does Negative Emissions Mean?

climeworks carbon capture devices for capturing CO2 from Air

Negative Emissions: Refers to a number of technologies, the objective of which is the large-scale removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Negative emissions is the mystical unicorn. You can find which companies are exciting in this space in our post The Rise of Carbon Capture.

Paired with widespread renewable energy, negative emissions will be a key player in dodging (dipping, diving, ducking, and dodging) runaway climate change.

All jokes aside, we cannot move in this direction fast enough.

The Challenge Ahead: Moving to Zero Carbon ASAP

clean technology designed to achieve net zero carbon emissions

On his blog Only Zero Carbon, Dr. Peter Carter shares that most scientists accept shooting for zero carbon to be “Aim for zero net carbon emissions. We use carbon neutral as shorthand for zero net impact on radiative climate forcing.”

Dr. Carter points out the danger of this definition. For example, take an organization that operates in a highly inefficient building running on fossil fuels. Even if they pay to offset that energy with renewable energy credits, the CO2 from their energy use is still being released into the atmosphere.

And he asserts that the only answer, if we want to give the climate a shot at stabilizing, is to get away from fossil fuels entirely and move to 100% renewable energy. Otherwise, carbon neutral will not cut it.


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  1. Dr. Ken Towe

    The real problem with permanent carbon removal is that the amount required is way too large. Billions of tons of CO2 will need to be buried to make a difference to the climate. The technology, although rapidly improving, works with just a few millions of tons annually. The difference is dramatic. Just one part-per-million of the carbon we have oxidized represents almost eight billion tons. And one ppm is trivial when 350 ppm is the goal and we now have more than 400 ppm in the atmosphere.

    • Cameron Brown

      Hey Ken, my sincerest apologies for the delayed reply. And thank you for reading and checking back here to hold us accountable and have this honest discussion. To your point about carbon removal working with just a few million tons annually–we’re clearly a long distance away from the type of volume that would impact the climate. That brings up the question of how fast this type of tech could scale up. Do you think carbon removal is worth being apart of the batch of solutions if it could scale? What are some other approaches or solutions that you think are interesting or have potential?

  2. Dr. Ken Towe

    Hello Cameron…Thank you for answering. I do not think that any quantitative efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere in the amounts required will make a difference to the climate. The amounts that are considered necessary vary but the most commonly expressed one would require the ultimate permanent burial of about 65 ppm…back down to 350 ppm (the 1987 value). That would mean about 500 gigatons….clearly impossible. As my comment made clear, only one ppm would mean 7.8 gigatons. And that will take thousands of years at current rates.

    A new direction is needed. I see it as continuing our lowering of CO2 emissions, but not to zero. Coupling the lowering with added alternative energies and local and regional infrastructure adaptations. The last will be needed regardless. The idea heavily promoted that all added CO2 emissions will be “dangerous” and that our complete disuse of carbon is required is dishonest science, one based on models that geological and geochemical evidence has falsified.

    Research on carbon capture and safe storage, and innovative technology should continue but not under the guise that it can affect the Earth’s climate. Nothing that humans can do will affect the natural variability that has controlled the Earth’s climate and weather for billions of years.


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