It’s the holy grail for a generation of eco-conscious companies, but what does being carbon neutral really mean?
What is carbon neutral?
The term “carbon neutral” is fast becoming a business buzzword. Originally registered by the Carbon Neutral Company ten years ago, it is used to describe when a company has cut its emissions to net zero.
The Carbon Neutral Company defines this as “the point at which the equivalent amount of CO2 produced by a manufacturing process; distribution system and/or product use is equal to the amount being removed.”
So, being carbon neutral is about bringing your carbon footprint down to nothing. Typically, organisations can achieve this through a combination of using renewable energy, increasing efficiency, and using offsetting schemes for the remaining balance of emissions.
But some critics argue that the concept of carbon neutrality is fundamentally misleading (more on this later). Even so, as the public becomes more aware of the need for action to combat climate change, more businesses are rushing to “go carbon neutral”.
This is because organisations want to prove their green credentials and show themselves to be responsible corporate citizens.
Who’s doing it?
Several well-known companies have committed to becoming carbon neutral.
For example, many airlines now offer the option to fly “carbon neutral”, and last year Eurostar opened its St Pancras International terminus and made all of its journeys carbon neutral at no extra cost to passengers.
Marks and Spencer has launched a £200m eco-refit that is being rolled out across the entire company. Its Plan A pledges a commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2012.
Even some countries are going carbon neutral. In February 2008 Costa Rica, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway signed up to become carbon neutral to de-carbonise the global economy. They were the first to join the Climate Neutral Network, launched in Monaco by the UN Environment Programme.
Carbon neutral certification
Despite a plethora of “carbon neutral” pledges there is no way to check up on companies’ efforts. That’s because there is no industry standard of what carbon neutral actually means.
Nevertheless, there are several organisations out there that offer businesses “carbon neutral certification”, such as The Carbon Neutral Service and The Carbon Reduction Institute.
So what should we make of it all? In many cases, pledging “carbon neutrality” is a positive step for the environment.
Once companies made small green pledges or launched “eco” versions of their products as a way of proving their environmental credentials. Today, they are increasingly looking at their whole business and trying to find ways to achieve net zero emissions.
But whether that’s ever really possible is open to debate. No business, or human being, can completely cut out C02 emissions.
Critics argue that simply buying carbon offsets, for example, doesn’t really cancel out the original pollution. For them, becoming “carbon neutral” doesn’t mean buying offsets each time we do something or buy something that creates carbon emissions.
It means changing the way we behave and the products we use. If a company becomes too focused on offsetting then it is little more than licence to carry on ‘business as usual’.
And there’s another danger. Without an industry standard, companies could just use the idea of carbon neutral as a marketing tool.
As more organisations use the “carbon neutral” label to promote themselves as “green”, there is concern that it will actually become meaningless. At worst, it could become representative only of a money exchange rather than a real change in behaviour to reduce emissions.
What can I do to become carbon neutral?
Despite the concerns, the idea of reducing your carbon emissions as much as possible is still something to be celebrated. Some people may dismiss carbon neutrality as a trend, but finding new ways to cut your carbon can be a rewarding experience.
If you want to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions you could look at making behaviour changes – doing things like making your home more energy efficient. Once you’ve done everything you can, you may then want to consider offsetting your remaining carbon emissions.
If you’d like to shrink your carbon footprint, you can create a personalised BBC Green Action Plan, which will show you what steps really makes a difference.