What’s the difference between carbon-neutral and net-zero emissions?


FILE – This Jan. 16, 2020 file photo shows a Uniper energy company coal-fired power plant and a BP refinery beside a wind generator in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The world hit another new record high for heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, despite reduced emissions because of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists announced Thursday, June 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In September, the Austin City Council adopted a new climate change resolution plan called the Austin Climate Equity Plan — it sets the stage for the City of Austin to make big moves in the fight against climate change.

The main goal of the Climate Equity Plan is to reach net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, while also addressing the racial inequities around climate change initiatives.

However, there’s also cities like New York, Portland and Minneapolis (as well as others across the globe) who are part of the Carbon Neutral City Alliance (CNCA).

Net-zero emission cities. Carbon-neutral cities. They may sound similar, but it’s important to understand the difference between the two when cities pledge to these terms.

Carbon-neutral– means that any CO2 released into the atmosphere from a company’s activities is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed.

Net-zero emissions– balance the whole amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) released and the amount removed from the atmosphere.

This is according to Plan A, a German-based science and technology platform that helps businesses measure their climate footprints.


When comparing the two terms, again, there seem to be a lot of similarities. But it’s the differences that make each term important.

When a city or a business is carbon-neutral, it is referring to the balance of carbon emissions. Another way to think of this is of a scale. On one side, you have carbon being emitted into the atmosphere, and on the other, there are carbon sinks that remove carbon from the atmosphere in an act called carbon sequestration. Carbon-neutrality is revolved around carbon emissions only.

While net-zero emissions involves a similar balance structure, the difference here is that net-zero emissions involves a balance of all greenhouse gas, not just carbon.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 80% of all greenhouse gases are carbon-dioxide. But other big emitters include methane, which is emitted in multiple modes of transportation, but also from livestock, agricultural practices and decaying wastes from landfills. Methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases make up the other 20% of greenhouse gases.

In other words, net-zero emissions goes a step further than carbon-neutral, and would be considered the point in time where a city or businesses stops emitting climate-heating gasses into the atmosphere.

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