The U.S. pledges to be carbon-neutral by 2050 as environmental concerns continue to intertwine with business. What’s your company’s ESG score? This question becomes more common, along with sentiments related to “getting to net-zero” and being “carbon-negative.”  The latter term grows in popularity.

Entire nations host net-zero initiatives. Likewise, it’s a priority topic for companies concerned about improving ESG scores along with environmental, social, and governance standards.

What is Net-Zero?

Net-zero refers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (as much as possible) in concert with efforts to rid the atmosphere of existing emissions. But, connotations get confusing; net-zero does not refer to zero emissions. It means created emissions will be subsequently offset by other endeavors. 

Related terms (carbon neutral, low emissions, etc.) find way into the evolving conversation as well. Moreover, going net-zero is not limited to countries. Cities, towns, neighborhoods, and (even) buildings can be deemed ‘net-zero.’

Some use the term, “carbon-neutral” instead, intending to relay a net-zero sentiment. Describing particular processes makes terms more easily understood. For example, bioenergy creates carbon emissions yet achieves a “neutral” effect since no net increase of carbon is achieved.

In another scenario, subsequent actions eliminate or capture emissions. Some production and industrial plants are fitted with carbon capture and storage technology.

What Net-Zero Is Not

While companies continue to construct methods in order to achieve a net-zero status, “zero emissions” means that absolutely no CO2 is released. Seemingly ideal, no mining or manufacturing system can celebrate this feat at present.

Alternatively, in a “low emissions” scenario, companies attempt to reduce the amount of emissions as much as possible. For example, a company may decide to modify the manner in which power is generated and used in order to emit less CO2.

In a “carbon-negative” scenario, CO2 is removed from the atmosphere, or more CO2 is sequestered than emitted by an entity. For example, the process of bioenergy involves carbon capture and storage.

Accepted definitions are up for debate. For example, some refer to the use of solar panels as a zero-emissions endeavor. Yet, emissions are created during the manufacturing of panels. However, unlike utilizing fossil fuels, solar panels do not create additional or ongoing emissions.

Getting to Net-Zero

A number of nations pledge to achieve a net-zero status in decades to come. Eliminating or reducing the amount of fossil fuels used is but one method. In other scenarios, companies plant trees, install solar panels, or find alternative ways to offset the amount of carbon emissions. Furthermore, the development of newer technologies, such as using biochar in soil, helps reduce carbon emissions.

Yet, to date, no technology or endeavor can entirely offset global emissions. This fact opens the door for differences regarding universally-shared definitions. Regardless of definitions, all net-zero intentions must first focus on reducing or replacing fossil fuels before achieving total elimination.

Carbon capture and storage, though effective, is not always cost-effective for companies. In other scenarios, the implementation of such technology is not entirely practical either. Moreover, some endeavors are not guaranteed solutions. For example, reforestation does well in offsetting emissions. However, a forest fire, burning trees and releasing CO2 back into the environment, is an example of an unfortunate but plausible, counterproductive scenario.

Ridding the Atmosphere of CO2

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the carbon-negative sentiment is the hope that one day we’ll be able to use CO2 as an environmental asset. Such technologies would remove CO2 from the air, subsequently using it to produce materials and products.

Biochar is one such example of a possible world-saving technology. Charcoal-like, it’s added to soil, promoting microbial activity that prohibits organic matter from breaking down and releasing carbon into the air. While extremely promising, science continues to improve upon this method.

Companies Pledging Carbon-Negative

Microsoft has aspirations to get carbon-negative by 2030. Is it possible? Well, Google claims it’s been carbon-neutral for years. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) urges the world to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide by 2050.

Microsoft seeks to reduce emissions via its value chain and internal efforts. It intends to use a range of methods such as reforestation, soil sequestration, and new/developing carbon technologies.

Carbon capture experts largely celebrate direct air capture. A Canadian firm has just pledged to build the world’s largest direct air capture plant. Aspirations are to remove one million tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year. A few short years ago, this technology was thought too expensive to realize or implement.

Microsoft’s pledge is an enormous one that will have other big businesses, and those around the world, following with increasing interest. 

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Net-zero, carbon-neutral, carbon-negative … confused by all the carbon jargon? Then read this

Microsoft is going carbon-negative. What does that mean?