Net zero, carbon neutral and climate positive: what’s the difference?

There’s a lot of jargon surrounding the climate conversation. Terms like ‘carbon neutral’, ‘climate positive’ and of course the ubiquitous ‘net zero’ are the building blocks of strategy and discussion, but are we using them correctly and consistently? 

Future Food Movement Net Zero Coach Will Clare is here to help. 

“If we’re to make meaningful sustainable progress, it’s absolutely critical that a) everybody understands this language, and b) we’re all on the same page about what these terms mean. And yet many important climate terms are used interchangeably – ‘carbon dioxide’ and ‘greenhouse gas emissions’, for example, or ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’. This can lead to muddied conversations when we need to be crystal clear, slowing down progress and even throwing up additional obstacles, such as accusations of greenwash.  

So what do some of the more commonly-used climate terms actually mean, and how can we distinguish their definitions from other phrases which may, on the face of things, seem like the same thing? 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) vs. greenhouse gases (GHGs) 

Carbon dioxide certainly takes centre stage in the climate conversation, and for good reason. It’s the most prolific greenhouse gas to trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere, contributing to climate change. In the UK, around 80% of all GHGs are carbon dioxide. But it’s just one type of GHG. Others include nitrous oxide and – of particular importance to the food industry – methane, which is released through various livestock processes. These other GHGs represent a smaller proportion of overall GHGs, but they are more potent than CO2. 

To simplify things, some organisations report ‘CO2 equivalents’ (CO2e), which takes into account all GHG emissions associated with a particular activity. This means that little ‘e’ is something you need to be mindful of to avoid confusion.  

Carbon neutral vs. net zero 


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