With all the talk about measuring carbon footprints and becoming carbon neutral, some people ask: Can we go past being carbon neutral and become carbon negative? It is a legitimate question to ask, since offsets are used to reduce the amount of carbon any one person or organization emits. Could it then be possible to really reach a level of negative carbon emissions?
The answer is not quite as cut and dry as yes or no. There are several means available to reduce emissions at their source and to offset others that cannot be reduced — as well as offset more than you are responsible for yourself. But there are also issues when it comes to defining what carbon neutrality and, therefore, carbon negativity really entail.
Below is a comprehensive exploration of carbon measurement, what it means to be carbon negative, and if it can in fact be achieved.
What Does Carbon Negative Mean?
Carbon negative means, in effect, that you emit less than zero carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) greenhouse gasses. However, since it is impossible to emit a negative amount of carbon (or any other physical substance), being carbon negative refers to the net emissions you create. To be carbon negative means to offset more carbon, through carbon capture, sequestration, or avoidance, than you contribute to the environment.
Carbon offsets can be complicated, but their basic function is to take carbon from the air or prevent carbon from being emitted through alternate practices and measure the amount in the form of carbon credits. Each credit is generally equal to 1 metric ton of CO2 avoided or captured.
Any organization or individual that wishes to lower their carbon footprint can purchase these credits, which have effectively “offset” the equivalent amount of carbon — with one credit negating one metric ton of CO2e. In this sense, anyone could offset more than their total amount of carbon — but it is extremely hard to get any carbon footprint low enough to do this without buying massive amounts of offsets.
Even a single person has a much larger footprint than they might expect, given all the emissions tied into everyday activities that most people are not even aware of. People in developing areas tend to have lower carbon footprints, but this is due in large part to the fact that they are unable to afford to use as much stuff that is part of the carbon cycle — and, therefore, are typically unable to purchase the credits needed to offset their comparatively lower footprint.
Giant companies may be able to buy enough offsets to reach carbon neutrality if they do not have an inherently carbon-intensive product — though even then they would need to set aside a considerably large budget to do so, which would not only eat into profits but also (probably) money needed for organizational expenses. Any company that seriously wants to achieve carbon neutrality must invest in reducing emissions from their operations to lower the amount of carbon that needs to be offset.
In short, carbon negativity requires implementing actions that lower emissions from the source while also purchasing a significant amount of credits to offset the remaining emissions and then some — and it is difficult, though possible, to achieve.
How Is Carbon Negative Different Than Carbon Neutral?
The terms “carbon neutral” and “carbon negative” are on the same plane, one just uses slightly more offsets than the other to be achieved. In theory, a person or organization could be carbon neutral without offsets if they did not use anything within the carbon cycle at all, even for a single second.
However, this is virtually impossible, as even riding your bicycle has a carbon footprint associated with the manufacturing of the bike, which counts toward your personal carbon footprint. Likewise, any food eaten that has been shipped in any way, grown using any methods that are not completely carbon-free, and so on will have a carbon footprint associated with it.
So, in reality, at present everywhere around the world, it is impossible to be completely carbon neutral without offsetting some amount. Fortunately, the carbon footprint of riding a bike is miniscule when compared to all other types of transportation, and it is increasingly easier to eat locally grown food, making it increasingly easier to lower your carbon footprint in the first place — and in turn making it easier to reach carbon neutrality. Going one step further and offsetting more than you emit is the difference between being carbon neutral and carbon negative.
How Is Carbon Negative Different Than Achieving Net-Zero Emissions?
This is a tricky one, since there is some debate around whether buying offsets to reach carbon neutrality is the same as having net-zero emissions. Typically, though definitions vary, net-zero emissions refers to people or companies that reduce their carbon emissions as much as possible from things that they can control and then offset the remainder to be carbon neutral. This is considered different from regular carbon neutral because you are, in essence, making a concerted effort to reduce emissions from their sources instead of carrying on “business as usual” and purchasing offsets without making any changes in behavior or actions.
It is possible to achieve net-zero emissions and also be carbon negative, at least based on the definition above. Any company or person that reduces carbon output within their control to the lowest levels possible — and then offsets more than the remainder — can be considered both carbon negative and to have net-zero emissions.
Is It Possible to Reach Carbon Negativity?
As mentioned above, it is possible to reach carbon negativity — but it will take a coordinated effort to reduce emissions from their source and a significant amount of offsets to get there.
One of the best ways to realistically reach carbon negativity is to employ different methods of carbon reduction to complement lowering emissions from the source. These include nature-based solutions, enhanced nature solutions, and direct air carbon capture — all of which can be done directly by companies, or through offsetting projects, which is typically easier and more verifiable.
It takes effort, a coordinated approach, and conscious investment — both of money and time — to reach true carbon negativity. But it is possible, as some major brands and corporations are proclaiming they will reach this goal as early as 2030.
How Can Companies and Individuals Reach Carbon Negative Goals?
There are many simple and practical ways for people and companies to get within striking distance of being carbon negative. From there, it is up to them to make the extra effort to achieve this status associated with offsetting more carbon than they emit.
First things first, make sure all energy used in direct operations comes from renewables or other carbon-free sources, such as nuclear. This applies to company activities that directly use energy and individual activities that use energy within the home.
Next, it is imperative to reduce indirect emissions as much as possible. For a company, this can be done by reviewing a supply chain to find suppliers and logistics that create less emissions or by limiting employee Scope 3 emissions, such as those attributable to commuting to and from work. For individuals, this can be done by making smart choices outside the home, from riding that bike to eating that locally grown food.
Lastly, after you’ve tallied up the total carbon footprint for yourself or your company, invest in more offsets than the amount of carbon emitted. It is important to ensure that the offsets you purchase are verified and of good quality, ideally with co-benefits for nature and communities in areas that they are generated. Remember: one credit typically equals 1 metric ton of carbon removed from the atmosphere — you just need to buy one more credit than tons you’ve emitted to reach carbon negative status.
What Role Do Offsets Play in Becoming Carbon Negative?
Offsets play a major role in becoming carbon negative. In fact, it would be impossible to achieve carbon negativity without them. This is because, as stated above, it is impossible to emit a negative amount of a physical substance — in this case, carbon dioxide. Offsets are needed to remove excess carbon and to go past neutral into negative territory. And, as also stated above, it is impossible in the modern world, virtually anywhere on the planet, to not use or eat something that has not emitted carbon somewhere along the line. This makes it even more imperative to use offsets, as they are needed to supplement even the most conscious eco-warrior’s actions.
But not all offsets are created equal. They need to be verified from a trusted source, with full transparency as to their methodology and ability to sequester carbon effectively. Terrapass uses only projects affiliated with the Climate Action Reserve (CAR) or Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), both of which assure transparency and quality in the creation, quantification, and verification of offset projects. It is crucial to make sure your offsets are truly negating as much carbon as they claim — otherwise you won’t be carbon negative, or even carbon neutral.