You have probably seen the phrases and terms ‘becoming carbon neutral’, carbon negative’, ‘climate positive’ and ‘offsetting carbon emissions’ in some companies’ sustainability goals or plans before. Usually most companies aim to achieve these goals by 2030 or even later – a little late if you ask us. In today’s THOUGHTS article we want to explain these different terms. So what do these terms mean exactly?
All these terms can be quite confusing sometimes. What do carbon neutral and climate positive mean? Do they mean the same thing or different things? What is the difference between carbon neutral and climate positive? How can they be achieved? What are most companies promising? Let’s look at the definitions first!
Carbon neutral was first used in 1992. It means that a company or activity releases or results in no net addition of carbon emissions into our atmosphere. This is often also known as net zero carbon emissions. Often carbon neutral rather means though that a company is counterbalancing the carbon emissions it produces by carbon offsetting. What does that mean?
Carbon offsetting means an action is taken to compensate for the carbon emissions in our atmosphere that have already been released in the past. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary it can also mean “a quantifiable amount of such activity that may be bought, sold, or traded especially as part of a system to reduce pollutants in the atmosphere”. You can often read about companies who support specific climate projects or organizations that plant trees to offset their own carbon emissions.
Climate positive means that an action or an activity by a company or organization surpasses net zero carbon emissions. If a company is climate positive it means that either through compensating or other activities the company has achieved to create a benefit for our environment. So additional carbon emissions – not only what the company has released – is being compensated for. This should always be the goal.
Carbon negative is basically the same as climate positive. Sometimes you may also see the term ‘carbon positive’ which also means the same as climate positive and carbon negative. However, it makes things even more confusing as carbon negative and climate positive simply make more sense.
When you google what climate positive means mostly big companies may show up on the first google page promising to become climate positive by 2030 or even later. For example H&M is aiming to become climate positive by 2040. Can they even keep that promise? And why are all these big companies not being faster when climate change has been discussed for decades?
How can companies achieve climate positivity?
Usually companies and corporations work with specific organizations and NGOs to support climate projects. Other possibilities are to use renewable energy and resources or go for low-carbon options for the supply chain. However, it is often unclear how much of a company’s attempt to offset emissions is by supporting environmental organizations and how much a company is actually compensating through making changes within the system – like using renewable energy, renewable resources etc. And even if renewable energy and resources are used the fact that companies claim to do more good than bad might trick us consumers into believing they are doing something amazing for the world when no fundamental change is actually happening. Like an illusion in a magic show leaving us with a short-lasting feeling of awe.
Especially when it comes to fast fashion this leaves us to think: Why not simply produce way less with way better resources and with fair and actually safe labour conditions when so much is thrown away and harming the planet and people? The answer is simple – money.
Who exactly is releasing the most carbon emissions?
Did you know that 100 companies are responsible for over 71% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1988? You can read more about that in the Carbon Majors Database from 2017 – a report conducted by the NGO CDP. The report was conducted with the Climate Accountability Institute. What does Carbon Majors mean you ask? The CDP calls the 100 fossil fuel producers so-called Carbon Majors as they release the majority of carbon dioxide. When the analysis was conducted the CDP looked at 100 extant and 8 non-extant fossil fuel producers.
Now get ready for a number that will not only be hard to swallow but also almost impossible to imagine. How much do these companies release into our atmosphere? 928 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. And that is only counting the extant ones. Including the non-extants? 1.1 trillion tonnes of CO2 emissions. It is hard to wrap my head around how much that is so I can only imagine that maybe you are shocked and confused at the same time right now.
Shell and ExxonMobile – maybe you remember that name from the recent events in Texas – and other well-known fossil fuel producers are some of the companies with the highest CO2 emissions. In the report the CDP explains how the average global temperature could rise up by 4°C by the end of this century if nothing changes. While 4°C doesn’t sound like much at first this could actually lead to the extinction of substantial species and worsen the global food scarcity. These consequences will affect all of us – sooner or later.
What do more recent analyses say?
As the Carbon Majors report is almost 4 years old we should look at more recent information. Most articles and reports address the countries with the biggest amount of CO2 emissions. With China and the US leading the board. However, when it comes to countries it gets a little more complicated. These numbers are often used to blame specific countries when in fact we need to realize that the US and European countries produce many of their products or product parts in countries with very high CO2 emissions.
When looking at current information on the climate crisis it can be said, though, that the change in our climate is based on human activity according to NASA. Recent studies show that especially since 2014 our weather has changed enormously. Especially recent events have shown that we are already in the middle of the climate crisis. From wildfires in California and Australia getting worse to freezing temperatures all over the US and even in Europe. If you are in Germany like us maybe you remember how we went from almost -20 °C to 20°C in a span of two weeks. Should we be concerned? Probably.
What we as consumers can do to hold companies accountable
Whenever we talk about carbon footprints we talk about individuals, about us. But that takes away from the real issue and only blames the consumer who is not even the real culprit. Of course our throw-away-mentality, high consumption and dependency on many of those 100 companies is deeply engraved into our culture and consumer behaviour as it has been normalized and rewarded in the past and to this day. However, it is more complicated than just being an individual’s problem. As a collective we can reprogram ourselves and each other and demand change from our elected political leaders, as well as the companies we buy from. And if it does not work? Choose someone else. May that be electing someone different or not putting our money into companies and brands that are not listening to our concerns – if that is possible depending on everyone’s circumstances.
Overall, it is of course still important to realize that conscious consumption is the key from the consumer side. We can recognize what is wrong and voice our thoughts, fears and wishes. Together we can achieve more than we think. From consuming more consciously, to reaching out to elected officials, to changing our behaviour, to educating each other and demanding faster change so that our children and the children of the far future – no matter where they are in the world – don’t have to suffer our consequences. There is still time and therefore hope.