Carbon neutrality means that the total amount of emissions is either eliminated, neutralized, or compensated. Net-zero is a target that doesn’t include compensation and puts more emphasis on avoiding carbon emissions. Many products, data centers, or companies are already carbon neutral, but few have reached net-zero.
Martin Lippert spoke about sustainability at OOP 2023 Digital.
There is no exact or clear definition of carbon neutral and net-zero, but we have a well-established common understanding of them, Lippert mentioned. He distinguished between two ways to deal with emissions- eliminating emissions and offsetting emissions:
Eliminating emissions means to not emit carbon into the atmosphere in the first place; you basically avoid creating carbon dioxide (or equivalent greenhouse gasses) and avoid emitting them into the atmosphere.
Offsetting carbon emissions means that you continue to emit carbon into the atmosphere, but you either compensate for those emissions (e.g. via carbon certificates) or you try to remove those emissions from the atmosphere again over time – which is often referred to as neutralizing emissions.
Lippert explained that carbon neutral means that the total amount of emissions is either eliminated (avoided), neutralized (removed again), or compensated (e.g. via carbon certificates) – or a combination of all three ways. But you don’t know which way was chosen to achieve carbon neutral – as long as the total sum is the same as the amount of carbon emissions that you caused, he added. So it might be the case that a company did not do anything to eliminate emissions, but solely bought certificates to compensate for those emissions. That would still result in a carbon neutral banner, Lippert said.
In contrast to that, net-zero takes the compensation part out of this equation and puts a lot more emphasis on the elimination (avoidance) part, Lippert explained. It usually means that you first try to eliminate as many carbon emissions as possible – and neutralize (remove later) the remaining emissions that you can’t eliminate, he said.
According to Lippert, net-zero is a much stronger goal when it comes to reducing carbon emissions – and probably the reason why you see many products, data centers, or companies already being carbon neutral, but not so many net-zero – at least not yet.
The problem with offsetting approaches is that you – more or less – outsource the problem and continue to emit carbon, Lippert argued. If you emit, for example, 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere today, it contributes to climate change now. Planted trees – a widely used practice to achieve carbon neutrality – will need between 40 and 80 years to remove that carbon from the atmosphere again. While planting trees is usually a good idea, it doesn’t really compensate for your emissions in a meaningful time – especially if you continue to produce carbon emissions, Lippert concluded.
InfoQ interviewed Martin Lippert about offsetting emissions and net-zero.
InfoQ: Offsetting emissions by either neutralizing or compensating sounds a bit vague. Can you elaborate on what this really means?
Martin Lippert: The fundamental idea of “neutralizing” emissions is that you try to remove the emissions that you have put into the atmosphere from the atmosphere again – or at least emissions of the same amount. Planting trees is a widely known example of this. Those trees extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And because it is hard for individuals and companies to plant those trees themselves, they can sponsor those activities via organizations. The underlying idea is – if you can’t avoid the emissions in the first place – try to at least remove them again at a later time.
The story behind compensation is somewhat different. The underlying idea here is: if you can’t avoid the emissions on your end, help someone else to avoid emissions (in the same amount). A famous example is to sponsor modern cookstoves in developing countries. Those modern cookstoves emit far less greenhouse gas emissions than the ones people would continue to use if they would have no chance to get those modern ones. So this helps to avoid emissions somewhere else that would occur otherwise.
Both variants are often realized via so-called carbon offsets that you can buy via organizations that then invest the money into those projects.
InfoQ: You mentioned in your talk that offsetting approaches do not really solve the problem. Why?
Lippert: Buying carbon offsets sounds like an easy way to deal with your own carbon emissions and feels like you don’t do anything wrong anymore when you buy those carbon offsets. The term carbon neutral underlines that impression. But even though those offsets are – most of the time – well invested into good ideas and projects, they don’t change the fact that you’ve put carbon into the atmosphere and that this carbon doesn’t go away anytime soon and accelerates climate change. We really need to focus on avoiding emissions in the first place.