Net Zero Vs Carbon Neutral: a game of two halves

Net Zero Vs Carbon Neutral: a game of two halves

Net Zero Vs Carbon Neutral: a game of two halves

From the moment Qatar was announced as host nation, through its treatment of migrant workers, women and the LGBT+ community, and its questionable claims about sustainability, the Fifa 2022 World Cup has not been without controversy.  

Accusations of sportswashing and greenwashing abound. And those with their eye on the ball will know that Fifa’s pronouncement that the World Cup would be carbon neutral, through its offsetting of the claimed 3.6 million tonnes of equivalent carbon waste generated by the tournament, have been well and truly debased.  

Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University found that the carbon footprint – at around 10 million tonnes - was likely to be at least three times that FIFA claimed. And big questions remain about the type of offsets chosen to underpin any claim of carbon neutrality.  

Berners-Lee states: "It's very misleading to call this a carbon neutral World Cup." And we agree.

But part of the problem is that what it is to be carbon neutral is ill-defined, making interpretations of it by organisations wide and varied, and breeding confusion among everyone else.

Decoding Climate Commitments: Carbon Neutral Vs. Net Zero Explained

Founder, Simon Heppner, says: “There’s a big difference between a loosely defined Carbon Neutral claim and a third party assured Net Zero claim and we’re asking a lot of the public to recognise the relative ambitions of each. It feels like we’re heading towards the final whistle for Carbon Neutrality.”  

We’re way beyond the point when we should be letting organisations get away with claiming to be carbon neutral while making poor choices about carbon reduction and offsetting. This is not just semantics; it’s becoming dangerous, because in some cases it passes off insufficient action, sometimes complete inaction, as something considered, sustainable and purposeful.  

“If the goal is the ambitious action required to avert a climate catastrophe, then the answer has to be Net Zero.”  

What does carbon neutral mean?

The term ‘carbon neutral’ was popularised after the Kyoto Protocol (1997) as a market-based mechanism to encourage both countries and private companies to reduce their emissions. 

The PAS 2060 standard was an attempt to codify this for private sector organisations but, as Qatar has shown, no longer feels fit for purpose and should be shown the red card.  

Specifically there are three areas that Carbon Neutrality falls short of what is required:  

  1. Only scopes 1&2 are required, with scope 3 voluntary. For most businesses this means that the majority of their climate impact can be excluded.  
  1. There is no requirement to reduce emissions, in line with scientifically determined pathways. It is this issue which has given rise to criticism comparing Carbon Neutrality to the medieval practice of papal indulgencies – businesses can carry on without making any changes and buy their way out of the problem.  
  1. The types of carbon offsets that a business can use to neutralise its calculated footprint are not defined. The voluntary carbon market generates carbon offsets that range from high quality to low impact, with prices to match. Businesses going opting for Carbon Neutrality invariably choose the lowest cost and lowest impact offsets.  

It can feel churlish to criticise businesses that are taking action for not being sufficiently ambitious, when so many are ducking the issue entirely. But the limitations of carbon neutrality are confusing the public and will results in less impact and action, just when we need more.  

Scoring Goals for the Climate: Why Net Zero Wins Over Carbon Neutral

Net Zero is much more ambitious, linked as it is to the Paris Agreement (2015), which aims to limit the rise in global temperatures to below 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels, with the goal of global carbon emissions reaching Net Zero by 2050.   

Net Zero requires all Scope 1, 2 and 3 greenhouse gas emissions to be included in a business’ inventory.  

It requires reduction targets and action to drive down emissions along a science based pathway  

And it requires the use of carbon offsets that actually remove carbon from the atmosphere. through natural or technological carbon removal methods, such as reforestation, afforestation and direct air capture.   

Net Zero is about achieving equilibrium - a state of balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere (Energy Saving Trust, 2021.) The ‘Net’ of Net Zero recognises that it is enormously difficult to cut all emissions in the short amount of time we have, but the Net Zero ambition demands deep cuts to make those emissions minimal.

Embracing Net Zero for a Sustainable Future

Many people will have celebrated the idea of a carbon neutral world cup. They will have seen the clean, green headlines, but potentially misunderstood the ambition underlying the rhetoric. Carbon neutral can be a step in the right direction, but its poor definition makes it at best a confusing term and at worst an open goal for greenwash. In the carbon reduction game, it is Net Zero that has the clearer strategy, ambition and ability to get the desired result.  

To speak to Simon Heppner or to find out more, email