Carbon Neutral vs. Climate Neutral: There’s a Huge Difference, and It Matters

By Vivian Duncan | Updated on September 13, 2021

Many people use the terms carbon neutral and climate neutral interchangeably, but they’re actually very different concepts.

You may have heard them used together, but have you ever wondered what they mean exactly? There’s a big difference between climate and carbon neutral activities...

And, being able to differentiate between the two can help you make informed decisions for protecting and preserving the planet’s resources and inhabitants.

Climate badge placed on image of seddlings being grown.

Definition of “Carbon Neutral” and “Climate Neutral”

Leaving the Earth a better place is huge undertaking. To get there, people need to work together to reduce the greenhouse gases that are negatively impacting global ecosystems and climate stability. This can be accomplished through “climate neutral” and “carbon neutral” activities.

But, what exactly is the difference between being carbon neutral and climate neutral? What do these terms have to do with making the world a greener, more eco-friendly place?

  • Carbon refers specifically to carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas that is emitted by fossil fuels (like energy production and transportation) and other human related activity.
  • Climate refers to the average course of weather conditions for a particular location over a period of many years.

Neutral (in this case) simply means balanced.

  • Carbon Neutrality refers to living in a way that reduces the net impact of carbon-emitting human activity on our planet’s biodiversity.1 Basically it means that whatever carbon we generate, we have ways to remove an equal amount… Specifically, sustainable ways we can change, reduce, and implement new strategies to reduce carbon emissions to the point that there is a net zero effect on the world.
  • Climate Neutrality is a term that refers to the emission and mitigation of all greenhouse gases— not just carbon.3 Much like carbon neutrality, climate neutrality can be achieved by only emitting greenhouse gases at an equal rate to their removal from the atmosphere.7 This is often done by creating a replacement measure, often termed offset, which helps avoid the climate-damaging effects of greenhouse gases (GHG) generated by human activity.

High Impact Areas of Focus for Climate and Carbon Neutrality

Several areas of focus can have the greatest impact towards being carbon neutral and climate neutral, including:

  • Avoiding deforestation of existing forests
  • Reforestation (converting land that was cleared into a native forest again to generate tree planting offset solutions)
  • Afforestation (establishing new forests on open lands)
  • Increasing carbon-based stocks/sinks (a system, such as forests, plants, or soils, that help “store” carbon… in other words, remove it for good)

Benefits of Forestation

Naturally, tree planting efforts deliver benefits that go beyond the planet… to the living creatures (flora and fauna) that rely on them for their habitats.

By rebuilding or establishing new ecosystems, it impacts the world in ways we can’t completely measure, because the environmental balance that is restored is priceless. Some of the top carbon offset providers are working on forestation efforts.

Identifying Carbon Stocks

Carbon stocks can be found in dead wood or in the soil, so that means making sure that there are enough spaces for wood and plant-life to flourish.

Attaining carbon and climate neutrality involves increasing “soil carbon stocks through soil management techniques,”4 or in other words, creating healthy and non-invasive ways to take care of the soil (such as no-till agriculture) to reduce our carbon footprint.

Therein lies a challenge. How can we help make the world more ecologically healthy and green, given that so many human-activities result in excess carbon emissions, and especially because so many ways in which we try to reduce carbon emissions end up leading to carbon emitting emissions elsewhere in the world? How do we stop the back and forth of carbon saving and emitting acts to the point where our actions result in a net zero effect on our climate?

Carbon removal offsets offer some solutions to the problem… but only when done correctly.

An 8 Billion Trees graphic explaining what net zero means in the context of climate neutrality vs. carbon neutrality.

Carbon Removal: A Method to Achieve Carbon Neutrality (Net Zero)

Many organizations involved in reforestation, soil management, and forest management use what are called verified carbon offsets, to create a more climate and carbon neutral world. The verification process ensures that the removal offset is actually reducing carbon, not just transferring it to another task. Specifically, carbon removal offsets are “an action or activity (such as the planting of trees or carbon sequestration) that compensates for the emission of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” thereby lowering humanity’s overall carbon footprint.5

What are some examples of carbon removal offsets available? There are a wide variety of carbon offsetting methods today, in which the average person or business entity can invest.

Forestry Related Offsets

Forest management techniques, like planting trees to replace an area of land that may have been destroyed due to human activity, sequester CO2 by reestablishing native species of trees, which store the carbon to help balance, counteract, and cancel out the negative effects from the previous carbon emitted from destruction of the land.

Techniques such as afforestation (planting trees in places where there were no previous trees), reforestation (planting trees where trees used to be), and avoiding deforestation (not taking away trees and emitting GHGs, when possible, for agriculture and for-profit ventures) can help increase carbon and climate neutrality.2

Some companies go a step further with their reforestation programs, providing wildlife rehabilitation and sanctuary for displaced species. Others work with the local community to provide jobs to citizens in need, who also want to help create a more eco-friendly and greener planet.

Renewable Energy Offsets

Businesses and nuclear family households can use renewable energy techniques, such as hydro, solar, tidal, wind, biomass, and geothermal power to help offset dangerous CO2 emissions from everyday living.

The United States Department of Energy recommends the use of dams for power (hydropower) and energy from the sun (one of our largest, most fabulous, and naturally-occurring sources of light and heat. Thank you sun!) for electricity (solar power).8 People can also use gravity to create tides and waves to power commercial projects (tidal power), and wind turbines for agricultural ventures (wind power).

Woods, manure, yard materials and more can all be used as natural fuel and energy for industrial and commercial projects (biomass power), and using steam-driven turbines can power electrical generators for utilities-based projects (geothermal power) to reduce GHGs. These new technologies establish a more carbon and climate neutral impact on the world, and make the world a greener place to live.

Capturing GHGs: Climate Neutrality Solutions

Because carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas having a negative impact on the planet, finding effective solutions to eliminate additional harmful emissions is part of the climate neutrality solution. With the differences between carbon neutral vs. climate neutral, attention must be paid to the other big contributors to climate change.

Just some include:

  • Methane (C4)
  • Fluoride (F)
  • Chlorofloro-carbon (CFC)
  • Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)
  • Nitrous Oxide (N2O)
  • Carbon Monoxide (CO)

Various types of greenhouses gases graphic by 8 Billion Trees.

Relationship Between Climate Neutrality and Methane

Climate neutrality— as defined above— has a broader focus on all greenhouse gasses, not just carbon. Methane is one of the most harmful GHGs, and is responsible for the degradation of our planet through climate emissions.

One of the largest sources of methane emissions is through landfills and livestock farming. Intensive livestock farming, coupled with landfills and waste, biomass burning, rice agriculture, and biofuels accounts for some of the largest sources of human-related methane emissions and fossil-fuel burning contributing to climate change. In fact, at least 25% of today’s warming is driven by methane from human actions.6 So, in order to become climate neutral, a way of offsetting methane emissions is needed.

Methane Capture Protocols

Individuals and businesses can capture, process, and turn methane-emitting GHGs into useful energy by repurposing landfill waste (landfill gas), and manage livestock manure for energy use, which could potentially provide a new source of income and revenue for farmers (agricultural methane).

Methane capture protocols can also convert the methane into Co2. Since methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide (over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere), this is good. So even though carbon emissions have a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term.6

Graphic showing how solar radiation and greenhouse gases combine to generate global warming.

GHG’s Impact On Climate

Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG’s), whether they are from co2, methane, or any others, negatively impact the planet in the ways identified above, and more. Mainly, these human activities are producing specific gases into the atmosphere, which have the ability to hold heat at much higher levels than normal atmospheric conditions when combined with solar and infrared radiation. The trapped heat leads to changes in weather patterns and other natural disasters (like increased wildfires and the destruction of ocean corals).

Controlling the amount of greenhouse gases we produce, or finding ways to counterbalance them, is crucial to our survival. And with so many projects, places, and ways to make a difference, the options are wide open.

I’m Ready for Climate and Carbon Neutrality! Where Do I Start?

The first thing you can do is figure out exactly how big your ecological footprint is, which is fairly easy. There are a host of ecological footprint calculator options that help households and individuals measure their impact.

There are also various carbon-offsetting projects and plans out there, delivering easy and effective ways for anyone to reduce their footprint. You can check out some of the best carbon-offsetting providers here. You can also choose to purchase eco-friendly products, find alternative energy sources for your home or business, and invest in rainforest protection and climate technologies.

But these are just the beginning… there are many ways you can reduce your environmental impact, and helping the planet doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. Becoming climate neutral and carbon neutral just takes a little effort on our part right now, but the benefits to the Earth will continue long afterward.


References

1Carbon Free Boston. (n.d.). What is Carbon Neutral? What is Carbon Neutral? | Carbon Free Boston. https://sites.bu.edu/cfb/resources/what-is-carbon-neutral/.

2Sappi. (2021, June). Reforestation | Deforestation | Afforestation. Retrieved June 26, 2021, from www.sappi.com: https://www.sappi.com/reforestation-deforestration-afforestation-and-their-differences

3myclimate, F. (n.d.). What is Climate Neutrality? myclimate: Shape Our Future. https://www.myclimate.org/information/faq/faq-detail/what-is-climate-neutrality/.

4Management Institute, G. H. G. (2020, December 29). Forestry & Agriculture. Carbon Offset Guide. https://www.offsetguide.org/avoiding-low-quality-offsets/vetting-offset-projects/forestry-agriculture/.

5Merriam-Webster. (2021). Carbon Offset. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/carbon%20offset.

6Methane: A crucial opportunity in the climate fight. Environmental Defense Fund. (2021). https://www.edf.org/climate/methane-crucial-opportunity-climate-fight.

7University of California, Davis. (2020, December 6). How Carbon Neutral is Different than Climate Neutral. Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research (CLEAR) Center. https://clear.ucdavis.edu/explainers/carbon-neutral-versus-climate-neutral.

8U.S. Department of Energy. (n.d.). How Hydropower Works. Energy.gov. https://www.energy.gov/eere/water/how-hydropower-works.

9What’s Your Impact. (2017, July 8). Main sources of methane emissions. What’s Your Impact. https://whatsyourimpact.org/greenhouse-gases/methane-emissions.