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Carbon neutral vs. carbon negative: What's the difference?

Get to know these two related terms.

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GM outlined its strategy to become carbon neutral in late January; Apple in July 2020. But Microsoft's January announcement that it would be carbon negative by 2030 introduced another term into the mix. As more companies and governments talk about carbon emissions and climate change, we wanted to explain the key differences between the two phrases. 

See more: The United States rejoins the Paris climate agreement

Carbon neutral vs. carbon negative

Burning fossil fuels, like coal, natural gas and oil, emits carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. These emissions contribute to temperature increases, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. Because carbon dioxide is responsible for roughly 75% of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, the terms refer specifically to carbon rather than all greenhouse gasses. Some other greenhouse gasses include methane, hydrofluorocarbons and nitrous oxide.

Carbon neutral

I go into more detail on carbon neutrality in this explainer, but here's the gist: You're carbon neutral if the amount of carbon dioxide you emit into the atmosphere is the same as the amount of carbon dioxide you remove from the atmosphere. Any person or entity can be carbon neutral -- entire governments, companies or individuals.

Daily activities like driving and heating your home release carbon dioxide. You can reduce your emissions directly by walking or biking instead of driving -- or by investing in renewable energies. If those options aren't available to you, you can invest in carbon offsets. Offsets fund projects that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or restoring wetlands. Again, check out my carbon neutral explainer for more details about offsets

You may have also heard the term "net-zero" related to emissions. Net-zero is often used interchangeably with carbon neutral, but it refers to all greenhouse gas emissions instead of carbon dioxide alone.

Carbon negative

The term carbon negative takes the concept of carbon neutrality a step further. Where carbon neutral is an equal balance between the carbon dioxide you emit into the atmosphere and how much you remove from it, carbon negative means you remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than you emit. 

Microsoft says it's been carbon neutral since 2012, but announced plans in a Jan. 16 blog post to become carbon negative by 2030. The company pledged in the same post to "remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975" after it becomes carbon negative. The strategy Microsoft outlines is detailed, but the first stage of the plan includes investing in renewable energy and electric vehicles, as well as building certifications to make its offices more sustainable. 

Companies like H&M and Ikea have used the term "climate positive" to describe their efforts to reduce carbon emissions, which is just another (albeit confusing) way to say carbon negative. 

A tale of two terms

Defining carbon neutral and carbon negative can be confusing. That's especially true when you add in other commonly used phrases like net-zero and climate positive. As an increasing number of companies, governments and other entities announce plans to reduce their carbon footprints, expect to hear even more related terms tossed around. Fortunately, we're here to look closer into their differences -- and why they matter. 

If you want to learn more about becoming carbon neutral or carbon negative, start by calculating your carbon footprint. From there, you can find ways to reduce your day-to-day carbon emissions

See more: Elon Musk wants to remove carbon. What is he talking about?

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