There are a number of ways in which companies can lessen their impact on the environment, all on the road to achieving net carbon zero.
With increased pressure on organisations to bolster their sustainability efforts, you may be ready to get your business started on your journey to ‘net zero’ carbon. But what exactly is net zero, and how does it differ from other sustainability objectives such as being ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘climate positive’?
THE IMPACT OF CARBON ON THE ENVIRONMENT
Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat — known as the greenhouse effect — and warm our planet. This is a direct cause of climate change, posing serious threats to our planet through rising sea levels, melting of the polar ice caps, floods, droughts, extreme weather conditions and habitat loss.
There are a number of ways that humans emit GHGs into the atmosphere, including through agriculture, transportation, electricity production, industry, commercial and residential activities, and land use and forestry. The primary greenhouse gas emitted by human activity is carbon dioxide (CO2).
The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is having a huge impact. The Earth is currently about 1.1°C warmer than it was in the late 1800s — before the Industrial Revolution — and continued emissions are causing the temperature to rise even further. A report published by Berkeley Earth, a California-based non-profit research organisation, stated that:
“At the current rate of progression, the increase in Earth’s long-term average temperature will reach 1.5°C (2.7°F) above the 1850-1900 average by around 2033 and 2°C (3.6°F) will be reached around 2060.”
Scientific research clearly shows that in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change and preserve a liveable planet, the increase in our global temperature needs to be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. As the planet is projected to reach that figure in little over a decade, decisive and drastic action is now critical. This is why one of the main objectives of The Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2°C — preferably to 1.5°C. To reach this objective, emissions will need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
UNDERSTANDING CLIMATE TERMINOLOGY AND SUSTAINABILITY OBJECTIVES
We’ve already underscored the importance of reducing carbon emissions in order to slow the increase in global temperature. There are a number of ways in which companies can lessen their impact on the environment, all of which are on the road to achieving net carbon zero. Below, we’ll explain some of the basic concepts.
Being carbon neutral: Carbon neutrality is a balancing act. We’ve already learned that carbon is emitted into the atmosphere through human activity such as industrial manufacturing, transportation and electricity production. However, carbon can also be removed (or absorbed) from the atmosphere into carbon sinks. The main natural carbon sinks are soil, forests and oceans.
Being carbon neutral means that the amount of carbon you emit is equal to the amount of carbon being absorbed from the atmosphere. Achieving carbon neutrality requires you to know the amount of carbon you are releasing into the atmosphere, and then offset (or remove) an equivalent amount. This is an immensely positive move; however, since greenhouse gases are still being released into the atmosphere, it is not enough to keep the Earth from exceeding the 1.5°C target.
Being carbon negative (also known as climate positive): Carbon negative means going beyond neutrality and actually removing more carbon than you are emitting. It is a step further than being carbon neutral. A company might become carbon negative by:
- halting deforestation,
- eliminating the use of fossil fuels,
- sourcing all energy from renewable sources, and/or
- offsetting more carbon than has been released.
Note: What is meant by ‘carbon positive’? This is a confusing term that we wanted to address. Carbon positive is a marketing term that describes climate positive or carbon negative activities. When organisations use the term ‘carbon positive,’ they are essentially referring to the ‘positive’ change in their relationship with carbon. However, as the term is analogous to carbon negative, it can cause a lot of confusion and is best avoided.
Achieving net zero: According to the UN Net Zero Coalition, net zero means “cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere, by oceans and forests for instance.”
Transitioning to a net zero world is one of humanity’s greatest challenges. It calls for a complete transformation of consumption, production and transportation. Unlike reaching carbon neutrality, where the focus is on offsetting carbon emissions, net zero calls for companies to focus on reducing all emissions. To use a nutritional analogy, it is the difference between ‘working off’ a piece of cake by exercising more, and not eating the cake in the first place.
Net zero carbon (also known as carbon net zero or zero carbon): Net zero carbon involves reducing carbon emissions as much as possible, and offsetting only the few emissions that remain. Like achieving ‘net zero’, achieving net zero carbon requires you to focus on reducing or eliminating emissions.
Net zero carbon vs. net carbon: The difference between net zero and net zero carbon is that net zero is a term that includes all greenhouse gases, while net zero carbon focuses only on carbon dioxide.
ACHIEVING NET ZERO – WHERE SHOULD YOU BEGIN?
According to a new report called ‘Taking Stock: A global assessment of net zero targets’, over one-fifth (21%) of the world’s top 2,000 companies have made net zero commitments. But where should you begin?
We are often asked whether a company should aim for carbon neutrality or net zero. Aiming for carbon neutrality is a great start, especially if you focus on reducing emissions first before you rely on offsetting. This approach will leave you well on your way to becoming a net zero company.
No company can achieve carbon neutrality, climate positivity or net zero status without first understanding their environmental impact. For food businesses, that is where Foodprint comes in. Foodprint helps foodservice operators to better understand the impact of the food they serve, from field to fork. This empowers both food businesses and their customers to make more informed, environmentally-conscious decisions. Learn more about Foodprint and start your journey to net zero.