Net Zero Jargon Buster

Net Zero has rapidly become a term in demand, as countries and companies ramp up their action on emissions reduction and sustainability.

The consequences of climate inaction are incredibly high. We know that we must limit warming to 1.5°C to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

However, over time, the net zero landscape has adopted its own language and jargon. Often, terms can be confusing or unclear. At times, they can be interchangeable.

Here, we’ve compiled a Net Zero Jargon Buster of the most frequently used terms in the net zero discourse.

Why is the world trying to achieve net-zero?

It was agreed at the Paris COP in 2015 that we need to keep global warming below 1.5c this century in order to avoid catastrophic climate events. In order to do this, we need to achieve net zero by 2050.


It has been made clear that we must limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Currently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that we are currently at 1.1°C. More worryingly, the United Nations Environment Programme report that we are on track to reach 2.7°C by the end of the century.

It’s clear that every fraction of a degree matters. We’re witnessing a sharp rise in extreme weather events around the world. As time progresses, this will only get worse. Wildfires, heavy flooding, intense heat, drought, and storms are also becoming more frequent and devastating.

Avoiding as much global warming as we can will reduce our climate risk. To survive on this planet, we must keep warming below 1.5°C.

What is Net Zero?

Net zero is the status at which the amount greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere are the same as the amount of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere. Net zero emissions must be achieved in order to stabilise warming on the planet.

What are greenhouse gases (GHGs)?

GHGs are gases that absorb and trap heat from the Sun in the Earth’s atmosphere. These gases include: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).

Though carbon dioxide is the most potent of these gases, they are all the direct cause of climate change.

How do we achieve net zero?

The first stage is to radically reduce the greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. Only when that has been carried out, we look at neutralising the remaining emissions. Once these are neutralised, then net zero has been achieved.

What is carbon neutral? Is it the same as net zero?

Despite being often used interchangeably, carbon neutral is not the same as net zero. When companies claim they are ‘carbon neutral’, they are balancing their CO2 emissions with carbon offsets. This doesn’t mean that they have reduced their emissions by the amount required at sector or national level.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is by far the main greenhouse gas, but there are others, as shown above. Carbon net zero refers to achieving net zero for only this carbon dioxide component of greenhouse gas.

In short, carbon neutral is the practice of ensuring there is no net increase of emissions into the atmosphere, usually by offsetting (e.g. tree planting). This is not the same as net zero, as carbon neutral does not necessarily include radically reducing your existing emissions before offsetting the remaining emissions.

So what is offsetting?

Offsetting is the action of compensating for carbon emissions. There are very often time issues with carbon offsetting. For example, trees may take 25 years to mature to achieve their full carbon reducing potential. Offsetting has its place, but radical emissions reductions should always be the first priority.

Can I say I have achieved net zero without reducing my emissions? 

No. If you are not radically reducing your emissions, you are not doing net zero correctly – you are actually ‘greenwashing’. To achieve net zero, we must reduce our emissions as a first stage. The final stage is neutralising or offsetting the remaining small amount of emissions.

What is Scope 1?

Direct GHG emissions occur from sources that are owned or controlled by the company. These also include emissions from combustion in owned or controlled boilers, furnaces, vehicles, etc. or emissions from chemical production in owned or controlled process equipment.

What is Scope 2?

Scope 2 emissions come from purchased electricity, heat, and steam for use in business operations. Scope 2 emissions physically occur at the facility where electricity is generated, and so would fall into the scope 1 category for the power generator.

What is Scope 3?

Scope 3 is a reporting category that allows for the treatment of all other indirect emissions. Scope 3 emissions are a consequence of the activities of the company, but occur from sources not owned or controlled by the company.

These can also be up or down the value chain. For example, transport and distribution, or the disposal of goods or services after they reach the consumer. Some other examples of scope 3 activities are extraction and production of purchased materials; transportation of purchased fuels; and use of sold products and services.

If you’re looking for carbon and sustainability assessments for your business, visit our page here or give us a call at +44 (0)3 300 300 800.

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