Understanding Differences: Carbon Neutrality, Climate Neutrality and Net-zero Emissions

Examining the goals set by countries and the challenges associated with achieving them

With approximately a quarter of global energy-related emissions originating from the transport sector, decarbonisation is imperative to realise the Paris Agreement’s goals. Countries need to achieve the “rapid reductions […] of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty” (UNFCCC 2021, Paris Agreement, Art. 4.1). 

They way to achieve this depends on national circumstances and the priorities for the country. Different countries and news outlets as well as policy papers interchangeably use the terms “carbon neutrality”, “climate Neutrality” and “net-zero”, which leads to confusion and misunderstandings between the different national goals. The inconsistency in the use of terms within the same policy documents, and the scope of emissions covered by the different targets remains ambiguous in some cases. Not surprisingly, news outlets and the transport/ climate communities are stumbling to understand their own national polices. Let’s delve into the terminology and how countries are using them:

Understanding the terminology

At a global scale, the terms carbon neutrality and net-zero CO2 emissions are the same, as climate neutrality expands the coverage to eliminate all negative environmental impacts.

On the national level, net-zero CO2 emissions is generally applied to the national emissions and removals within the boundaries of the state. Carbon neutrality generally includes emissions and removals within and beyond the national boundaries, for example using carbon credits and International Transferred Mitigation Outcomes (ITMOs) to achieve the balance between emissions and sinks.

Classifying the different goals means to understand which gases are covered and whether they include offsetting or not:

The first very commonly used term is net-zero. This means ”anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period” (IPCC AR6 Glossary). The focus is that national policies are reducing emissions in all society spheres as much as possible, that the produced emissions are almost negligible.

Remaining emissions can be balanced by national carbon sinks, reforestation or Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Note that there is a differentiation between net-zero CO2 emission goals (only covering CO2) and net-zero greenhouse gas emission goals (all greenhouse gases covered: H2O, CO2, Nitrous Oxide (N2O), Methane (CH4) and Ozone (O3), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs)).

The second commonly used term is Carbon neutrality: “Anthropogenic CO2 emissions of a subject are balanced by anthropogenic CO2 removals” (IPCC AR6 Glossary). This terminology is not only used by countries, but also companies regarding their product production for example. The idea is emissions reduction strategies are implemented together with additional mitigation achievements by others in the form of bought carbon credits and certificates.

This term is commonly used by companies but also used by countries to support their own aims, and fulfilling the national requirements often through partial offsetting and carbon credits by reforestation projects, energy efficiency increase projects, etc. Similar like the differentiation mentioned for net-zero, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) neutrality covers all GHG gases, not only CO2.

Finally, Climate neutrality is covering all GHGs and aims similar like net-zero target to reduce emissions to be almost negligible. The “leftover” emissions shall be balanced by natural sinks such as the forest and the oceans. For achieving the Paris Agreement goals, the UNFCCC launched a campaign  “climate neutrality now” for achieving climate neutrality by 2050 also by organisations and individuals to compensate the produced emissions by contributing to a UN-vetted climate-friendly project.

Therefore, the main aim for achieving the Paris Agreement goal is “Decarbonisation” of sectors. In the context of transport and mapped out in the “Path to Zero” report, this entails reducing emissions to the point where they are almost negligible. In comparison to the agriculture sector, decarbonisation in transport is technically possible without relying on offsetting measures.

Countries’ targets and terminology

Examining countries’ net-zero emissions targets reveals varying usage of terminology. The OECD’s analysis of countries’ targets shows that “carbon neutrality” is often used to denote targets covering all GHGs, while other countries exclude specific GHG emissions from their net-zero targets. For instance, New Zealand’s targets exclude biogenic methane.

Understanding Countries’ Net-Zero Emissions Targets, OECD (2021)

Sometimes, there is inconsistency in the use of terms even within the same policy documents, and the scope of emissions covered by carbon neutrality targets remains ambiguous in some cases. It is worth noting that as of October 2021, most countries’ targets align with carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions goals, showing growing global momentum towards achieving these goals.

Finding the right words

This differentiation between net-zero and carbon neutrality is crucial for policy formulation. Some pledges are using the term carbon neutrality but the implying also the reduction of other GHGs. Others using the term net-zero without specification if this goal aims for only CO2 or for all GHGs.

The commitment to carbon neutrality does not necessarily imply a commitment to reducing overall GHG emissions. Important reduction of the other GHGs such as Nitrous Oxide (N2O), Methane (CH4) and Ozone (O3), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and f-gases are not covered within this terminology. Applying this term into policies can lead to blind spots within the climate and sectoral strategies and miss the opportunity to formulate holistic approaches for the economy-wide sustainable and climate-friendly transformation. To achieve meaningful progress, it is crucial to encourage clarity and consensus between countries and within countries and the leading ministries.

NDC Transport Initiative for Asia (NDC-TIA) is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI). The German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) supports this initiative on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bundestag. It supports China, India, and Viet Nam as well as regional and global decarbonisation strategies to increase the ambition around low-carbon transport. For more information on the project, please visit: https://www.ndctransportinitiativeforasia.org/

The Advancing Transport Climate Strategies (TraCS) project is implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK). 

©Mark Neal,Source: Pexels