What does carbon neutral mean?

We hear the term a lot. Here's what it means and what you can do to achieve it.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
3 min read
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Amazon and GM have pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040. Apple is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030, while Google claims it's been carbon neutral since 2007. Becoming carbon neutral is a growing trend among major companies -- and even entire countries -- but what does it actually mean, and is it something you can achieve as an average person? 

Achieving carbon neutrality has a much larger benefit when it comes from an industry or a national economy, but it's also a worthwhile goal for individuals. Here's what it means and how you can start minimizing your own carbon footprint. 

Read more: Biden rejoins WHO, Paris climate agreement on first day in office

What is carbon neutrality?

Everything you do that produces carbon dioxide -- from driving to powering your home and more -- makes up your carbon footprint.  Being "carbon neutral" means that you, or the operations of your business or your national economy, emit the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that you offset by some other means. Adding solar panels to your home, or switching to an electric vehicle are examples of things you can do to reduce your carbon dioxide output. 

Achieving carbon neutrality means that that your carbon dioxide output has a net neutral impact on the environment, and it can help stem the effects of climate change. Greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide increase average temperatures worldwide, which in turn contribute to rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and other factors associated with climate change.  

Some greenhouse gasses are naturally occurring -- did you know cows burp methane? -- while others are produced by humans. Carbon dioxide makes up roughly two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions, and that's caused mainly by burning coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels. Around 63% of electricity in the United States is generated by burning fossil fuels. 

Becoming carbon neutral

Unless you live entirely off the grid (or your business operations rely entirely on renewable energy), your carbon footprint most likely isn't zero. You can find tools to calculate your carbon footprint. You can also take steps to either directly reduce or indirectly offset the carbon dioxide you send back into the environment. Switching to renewable energy sources like wind, solar or geothermal heating directly reduces your carbon footprint; so does biking or walking instead of driving. 

Individuals and businesses can also invest in carbon offsets, which contribute to projects that reduce global carbon emissions (just not your own emissions). When you invest in a carbon offset project, you're buying carbon credits. One carbon credit is equivalent to one metric ton of carbon dioxide. Carbon offsetting for individuals is commonly focused on the airline industry, since flying creates a lot of emissions. One round-trip flight from Chicago to New York City emits about 630 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger, or about one-third of a metric ton. 

Some examples of carbon offset projects include planting trees, wetlands restoration and farmland management. Take a look at this list of certified offset projects for specific examples. If you click on the first project from that link -- the Kenya Biogas Programme -- one credit (or one metric ton of carbon dioxide removal) costs $19. After adding it to your cart, you have the option to buy it in your name or on behalf of someone else. The name you provide will appear on the certificate of purchase, and also on a registry that tracks carbon credits.

Once you've made your purchase, you own the credit and can either hold it as an investment or retire it so no one can hold, buy, or sell it again. 

A note on carbon offsets

The carbon offsets market has met with criticism due to the sale of unverified offsets. Others say offsets do not do enough to combat climate change. To avoid investing in an unofficial offset, any project should meets five criteria, according to the EPA:

  • Real: a quantifiable reduction in emissions
  • Permanent: emissions reduction cannot be temporary
  • Additional: reduction would not have happened otherwise
  • Verifiable: must be monitored for project legitimacy
  • Enforceable: laws to support emissions reductions 

It can be difficult to determine if a project meets these requirements, but organizations such as Gold Standard offer lists of vetted offsets. 

Read more: One Kentucky coal company is transforming old mining sites into a massive solar farm