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The concept of carbon neutrality has been around for a few years now. In fact, it was the word of the year for the New Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. However, both the theoretical definition and practical application of the idea remain a bit cloudy, even among the eco-friendly community. Not only does carbon neutral mean different things to different environmentalists – leading to confusion when it’s presented to the greater public – but people are also unclear as to what we can do about it.

To help people better understand what this term means and why it’s important to the future of our planet, this article will achieve the following objectives:

  • Define “carbon neutral”
  • Explore the similarities and differences between it and related terms
  • Explain how it’s related to your carbon footprint
  • Share some key tips to help everyone become carbon neutral

What is the Definition of Carbon Neutral?

After scouring dictionaries and the websites of government agencies and environmental nonprofits, we’ve crafted what we think is a pretty good definition. For something to be considered “carbon neutral,” it must achieve the following:

“The amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere is balanced or offset by an equal amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere.”

That aforementioned confusion arises when you start to account for where, when, and how both the emissions and those carbon offsets are created. You also have to consider the other harmful greenhouse gases that are generated besides carbon dioxide. Additionally, it’s essential you factor in whether such activities are mere corporate social responsibility measures or if they’re in direct accordance with aggressive proposals designed to actually curb climate change.

Put another way, to be truly carbon neutral, you must first take active steps to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases you release into the world. You then must match the emissions you do create with activities that offset them.

How Does Carbon Neutral Compare to Other Sustainability Terms?

There are a lot of terms floating around eco-friendly circles that can muddy the waters. Although it’s important you understand these terms, they can get in the way of taking specific actions to improve the environment. Let’s go over these additional concepts closely related to carbon neutral so you can sound like a knowledgeable friend of the planet. 

Climate Neutral

Climate neutrality means basically the same thing as “carbon neutral.” The use of “climate” removes the focus solely from carbon dioxide to include anything and everything that could harm the environment and/or contribute to climate change. 

Climate Positive

The next level of activism! Climate positivity occurs when you’ve reduced and offset more greenhouse gas emissions than you created. As in, you’ve brought the amount of clean air into the positive side of the atmospheric balance sheet.

Carbon Negative

The same basic concept as “climate positive,” this term focuses specifically on carbon dioxide. As in, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions you created is less than the amount of carbon dioxide you removed from the atmosphere. You’ve brought the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into the negative side of the atmospheric balance sheet.

Carbon Positive

Carbon positive is considered more of a marketing term. It clumsily combines the ideas inherent in “climate positive” and “carbon negative” to represent something akin to “we’re doing something positive to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.”

In our opinion, “carbon neutral” works just fine. It’s been around for the longest amount of time, which means more people are more familiar with the term. We’re also fans of “climate neutral / positive,” as this concept actively encourages you to consider the holistic impact of our actions, not just what happens with carbon dioxide.

What matters is that we’re clear and consistent with the terminology we use so we can effectively communicate with others the importance of taking bold steps to slow down climate change.

How Does Becoming Carbon Neutral Relate to My Carbon Footprint?

We’ve talked about your carbon footprint before. Much like carbon neutral, it’s a slightly confusing term that requires some education to understand what it means and the impact it has on the environment. In essence, it’s the collective impact your actions make on the environment, ranging from how much you drive to how far the stuff you buy has to travel before it arrives at your house and beyond.

Hence, your carbon footprint is a direct reflection upon your relative carbon neutrality. If you have a high carbon footprint, it will be harder for you to become carbon neutral, as you’ll have to offset or remove lots of carbon dioxide to balance everything out.

Thus, it’s imperative that you locate ways you can lower your carbon footprint. We recommend starting with the following when possible:

  • Carpooling or telecommuting
  • Buying only locally-sourced food
  • Eating less meat
  • Conserving electricity
  • Reducing, reusing, and recycling

In fact, many climate experts contend that creating a carbon-neutral planet must go far beyond mere carbon offsetting of our current emissions levels. We must actively create fewer emissions and bring them to zero as quickly as possible.

How Can I Become More Carbon Neutral?

If you really want to become carbon neutral in your home, neighborhood, and business, it definitely starts with the tips to reduce your carbon footprint we mentioned earlier. From there, we recommend the following course of action:

As we’ve discussed before with carbon offsets, there isn’t a “silver bullet” or single solution to the problem of global warming and climate change. It requires a multi-pronged effort that involves everyone, and it won’t happen overnight. 


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