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What is the difference between carbon neutral and net zero?

In the UK we have a legally binding target to be a Net Zero economy by 2050. The Government’s Net Zero Strategy (Build Back Greener) develops a roadmap for us to achieve this target.

However, at Sweco UK we have committed to achieve Carbon Net Zero by 2030, with no more than 15% of the baseline year (2020) carbon emissions directed into high quality offsets. But what exactly is net zero? There can often be some confusion between this term and ‘carbon neutral’, so we’ve created a quick guide to the two concepts below…

Carbon Net Zero

(No carbon emitted)

Carbon Net Zero is achieved when human activity adds no more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than the amount we take out. This requires the reduction of emissions through changes and adaptations to our operational activities and the source of the energy we consume. Only then, the permanent sequestration of any remaining emissions from the atmosphere is permitted.

Carbon Neutral

(Carbon emissions occur but are offset)

Carbon Neutral refers to the neutralising effect of activity, whereby there is no reduction in carbon (CO2) emitted. Instead there is a balance between the amount of carbon emitted and the carbon that is offset in order to neutralise it.

This could be done by making a contribution or fund to an emission saving project, where carbon offsetting is used to balance out emissions by helping to fund emissions saving elsewhere in the world. As a result, there is no net emissions reduction or change to operations or behaviours. In other words – “Business as usual”.

Our own Decarbonisation Advisory Services team work with wider teams and with clients across the built environment to ensure that whole life carbon is considered and carbon reduction opportunities are explored.

This includes developing carbon baselines for outline business cases, providing detailed carbon assessments and reports, and recommending carbon reduction opportunities aligned to the carbon reduction hierarchy. We also work with a range of clients to embed carbon reduction strategies within their organisations and support them through the delivery of carbon management training workshops.

We’re also proud that the Pledge to Net Zero Report itself included the Sweco Urban Insight and thought leadership piece “Carbon Cost in Infrastructure”.