Blog 17.04.20

What's your carbon: negative, neutral or positive?

IKEA and H&M Group are striving to be climate positive. Microsoft is committed to be carbon negative. BP says it will help its customers become carbon neutral, while its corporate ambition is to become a net zero company.

Well, that’s all crystal clear then. 

When carbon counting meets public relations, it’s inevitable that confusion follows. By trying to keep a sunny view of a gloomy situation, the word mongers in the climate change debate have produced a range of terms that don’t make a lot of sense without a lot of explanation. 

As BP says in the notes to its net zero announcement: “Such terminology and related methodologies may evolve over time…”

Understanding evolving terms

A cursory knowledge of double-entry booking is handy because it helps you understanding the frequent and important use of the word “net”, as in net profit when there is nothing else to be taken away (such as taxes). Because the carbon cycle involves carbon being emitted (e.g. airplane exhaust fumes) and simultaneously removed from the atmosphere by natural processes (e.g. growing trees), carbon accountants are interested in the carbon left over, the net carbon. It’s that carbon which contributes to climate change.

Here’s a quick guide to the four terms currently used by business to describe their climate ambitions. 

  • Net Zero. This refers to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It means your total GHG emissions amount to zero after you have deducted those emissions that are stored in natural sinks (plants, soil, sea) or removed in other ways, such as carbon capture. Methods of measuring the deductions are evolving too, and it’s inevitable that this will encourage some creative accounting when approaching the distant deadlines to achieve net zero.   
  • Carbon Neutral. The old-fashioned way of saying Net Zero. The term went out of favour because companies achieved neutrality mainly through offsetting, which is frowned upon by the cognoscenti because of dubious practices associated with it. Some offsetting activities, such as paying to conserve existing forests, are considered negative because you’re paying not to do something, such as cutting down a forest.  
  • Climate Positive. By going beyond net zero you can claim to be climate positive. This means you will be removing more GHG emissions than all the GHG you emit. This makes little sense until the concept is explained. Once you get to net zero emissions (energy efficiency, using renewables etc) you must help others, such as suppliers and customers, reduce their emissions that also contribute to your carbon footprint. Achieving climate positive status is really, really difficult. But it is seen to be very good thing because it removes additional carbon from the atmosphere, creating a positive outcome for the environment.   
  • Carbon Negative. This means the same as climate positive. Companies who prefer this term, such as Microsoft, would argue that it is scientifically more precise because success takes you below zero and into the negative. Users of climate positive say why use a frowny face (negative) when you can emote with a smiley? 

Despite the confusing and “evolving” terminology, the good news is that many companies are taking climate change extremely seriously and have developed robust plans to do something about it. Of course, this all happened before the coronavirus meltdown. But we trust and hope that once we emerge from the dark days of lockdown, the good work on combatting climate change will continue. 

Till then, it’s worth looking at BP’s argument and commitments to be a net zero company by 2030. The oil major has gone much further than its competitors. Essential reading is Microsoft’s well-written blog on its plans to be carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 to have removed all the carbon it has emitted since its founding in 1975.

Let’s hope someone’s around in 2050 to check.

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