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Climate positive, carbon neutral, carbon negative: What do they mean?

A quick guide to understanding popular sustainability jargon.

Climate positive, carbon neutral, carbon negative: What do they mean?
[Photo: Kaushik Panchal/Unsplash]

In the same week that the state of Hawaii announced it intends to be carbon neutral by 2045, the Swedish restaurant chain Max Burger introduced what it claims to be the first-ever “climate-positive” burger–which just as accurately, could be described as “carbon negative.” You would be forgiven, here, for feeling slightly confused with the current carbon linguistic climate.

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While the concepts of carbon neutrality and climate positivity/carbon negativity have been around for a while–“carbon neutral” was the New Oxford American Dictionary‘s word of the year in 2006–it’s just recently that they’ve catapulted into the mainstream. Everyone from countries to companies is applying these terms to their environmental efforts in greater numbers. The North Face introduced a climate-positive beanie this year made from the wool of sheep raised on a farm that removes more carbon from the air than it emits. A tech platform now exists to calculate the carbon cost of consumer products, and enable people to pay to offset it.

[Photo: Jason Blackeye/Unsplash]

Let’s get to the core of these definitions:

  • Carbon neutral means that an activity releases net zero carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
  • Climate positive means that an activity goes beyond achieving net zero carbon emissions to actually create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • Carbon negative means the same thing as “climate positive.”
  • Carbon positive is sometimes how organizations describe the previous two definitions. It’s mainly a marketing term, and understandably confusing–we generally avoid it.

These concepts all share an underlying goal: to substantially counteract the carbon footprint of a product, locality, or means of production. The first step in all of them, says David Craven, the program manager for C40 Cities’ Climate Positive Development Program, is to apply a carbon accounting framework to whatever it is the initiative is trying to address. If a company like Max Burger, for instance, wants to develop a climate neutral or positive food item, they must first calculate the total carbon footprint of that product. The carbon footprint envelops everything from the energy required to produce and distribute a product, to the emissions associated with sourcing and production.

Each activity that is required to make a product or sustain a company or development is assigned an “emissions factor,” which is based on each activity’s potential to contribute to global warming (GWP). Emissions factors and GWP apply to all greenhouse gases–including methane, which is a harmful by-product of both livestock production and burning natural gas–not just carbon dioxide. But because the carbon footprint is what’s ultimately being measured, the GWP of each activity is converted to a carbon dioxide measurement so they can all be aggregated.

[Photo: Jason Blackeye/Unsplash]

Once the total emissions and carbon footprint are calculated, the company or organization will have a sense how much they need to counteract. First, they have to decide how far they want to go. If a company or organization aims to be carbon neutral, it means that they will take measures to bring their total emissions to zero. Being climate positive (or carbon negative) is a step beyond. “It’s a way of talking about carbon accounting where essentially you’re going beyond net zero carbon,” Craven says. That means that not only does an initiative neutralize the associated carbon emissions–it also takes steps to ensure that the project removes additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Hence the positive/negative confusion here: Subtracting carbon is good for the climate, so it’s just two ways of looking at the same approach. (It’s impossible to say which moniker came first, but “climate positive” is generally preferred, as the more optimistic label.)

The way to calculate climate positivity starts with accounting for the total carbon footprint and what needs to be counteracted to become carbon neutral, and then tacking on an additional measure. Max Burger, for instance, is claiming climate positivity because it’s adding an additional 10% onto the scope of the carbon footprint it’s trying to mitigate, and taking responsibility for neutralizing the emissions resulting from its customers traveling to and from restaurants.

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[Photo: Jason Blackeye/Unsplash]

Those are the two main frameworks for counteracting carbon emissions, but how companies or localities achieve either carbon neutrality or climate positivity varies. Generally, though, they meet these standards through a combination of reducing emissions–switching to renewable energy, reducing waste, supporting more localized production to cut down on shipping, electrifying public and private transportation–and offsetting carbon by funding projects, like reforestation efforts, that remove CO2 from the air. “Even if you reduce your footprint as much as possible, there’s going to be a residual footprint,” Craven says. Offsetting is an effective way to counteract that residual footprint, and it’s often how companies are able surpass net zero to claim climate positivity.

But Craven, who works specifically with city districts on reducing their carbon footprint, suggests another way that localities, or even companies, can achieve climate positivity. The Stockholm Royal Seaport, for instance, is driving down emissions by converting its buildings entirely to renewable energy, developing community recycling and composting centers, building out sustainable transit options like zero-emission buses and bike lanes, and creating green spaces. It’s also implemented design and building standards that do not require excessive waste or use of resources. While these developments originated in the Seaport district, people who live nearby can also benefit from them and the Seaport could share their design standards with developments going up elsewhere in the city. “Supplying additional people or neighborhoods with lower-carbon energy creates climate-positive credits for the original project,” Craven says. In a sense, it’s not unlike Max Burger extending the reach of its low-carbon initiative to account for part of its customers’ footprint.

The benefit of climate positive initiatives is the spillover benefits they create for other people, companies, or localities that may not have the means or initiative to reduce their own carbon footprints. Ideally, carbon neutrality will become the eventual standard across the board, climate positive initiatives can, in the meantime, help pick up some of the slack.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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