What is the difference between carbon neutral and net zero?

What is the difference between carbon neutral and net zero? Sustainability

As concerns about global warming continue to grow, it seems as though sustainable design and architecture are high on the agenda for everyone. However, there isn’t much agreement about exactly what sustainable design is and definitions tend to vary.

In general, sustainable design is an approach to design that aims to reduce negative impacts on the environment, as well as the consumption of non-renewable resources, minimise waste, and create healthy, productive environments.

As our co-founder and Architect Director Giovanni Patania defines it, “sustainable design means a way to create architecture that reduces the carbon footprint, energy consumption, and environmental impact to a bare minimum, but it also entails creating an architecture that contributes to the mental wellbeing of the occupants with biophilic views.”

Two important, measurable concepts in sustainable design are the concepts of carbon neutrality and net zero. While the terms “carbon neutral” and “net zero” are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings.

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Carbon neutral vs. net zero: The core distinctions

Carbon neutrality refers to the state of emitting no more carbon dioxide (CO₂) into the atmosphere than is removed. Net zero refers to the state of balancing all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with removals.

In other words, carbon neutrality is achieved by reducing emissions to zero, while net zero is achieved by reducing emissions as much as possible and then offsetting the remaining emissions with removals.

What does it mean to be carbon neutral?

To be carbon neutral, an organisation or individual must measure their annual emissions of CO₂ and then offset those emissions by investing in projects that remove CO₂ from the atmosphere. These projects can include planting trees, investing in renewable energy, or capturing and storing CO₂ emissions.

There are a number of ways to offset carbon emissions. One way is to purchase carbon offsets, which are credits that represent the removal of one ton of CO₂ from the atmosphere. Carbon offsets can be purchased from a variety of sources, including governments, businesses, and nonprofits.

Another way to offset carbon emissions is to invest in projects that reduce emissions or remove CO₂ from the atmosphere. These projects can include renewable energy projects, energy efficiency projects, and afforestation projects.

A good example of a carbon-neutral building is the Hotel Bauhofstrasse in Ludwigsburg. The base is made from concrete, but it was offset by using 440 cubic metres of wood which subtracted 880 tons of CO2 through substitution and storage effects and sustainable architecture techniques.

The substitution effect refers to the use of materials that have a lower carbon footprint in place of materials that have a higher carbon footprint – in this case, using wood instead of steel. The storage effect refers to the process of storing carbon dioxide (CO₂) in plants, soil, or the ocean. This can be done by planting trees, using sustainable agricultural practices, or developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

The definition of net zero

Net zero is a more ambitious goal than carbon neutrality. It requires organisations and individuals to reduce their emissions as much as possible and then offset any remaining emissions with removals.

The Floating Office in Rotterdam is one example of a Net Zero building. This three-storey wooden structure can be broken down and completely reused if necessary. Solar panels generate more power than the building consumes, while water from the harbour is used for cooling. It may seem extreme, but creating a space that incorporates the natural environment without causing damage to it is one that dates back to the early origins of man.

“Humans have a long history of using materials from their surroundings to create durable living spaces,” says co-founder and development director Ryan Windsor of WindsorPatania.

Using materials or resources from the surroundings of the building can help to reduce the environmental impact of extracting and processing materials from virgin sources. Additionally, using materials that are locally sourced can help to reduce transportation emissions.

However, emissions must be balanced with removals. As Giovanni Patania explains, “it would be incorrect to name a skyscraper sustainable just because it has a couple of floors covered with plants and trees when it is made of steel, a material with a high carbon footprint.”

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Is carbon neutral the same as net zero?

Carbon neutrality is not the same as net zero. Carbon neutrality is achieved by reducing emissions to zero, while net zero is achieved by reducing emissions as much as possible and then offsetting the remaining emissions with removals.

Key differences include:

  • Emission Allowance: Carbon neutrality allows for some emissions to remain, as long as they are offset by removal measures. Net zero, on the other hand, requires complete elimination of emissions.
  • Emphasis on Carbon Removal: Net zero places a greater emphasis on actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, whereas carbon neutrality primarily focuses on balancing emissions with offsets.
  • Stringency: Achieving net zero is typically considered more stringent and ambitious than carbon neutrality due to the requirement of complete emissions elimination.

In practice, it is very difficult to achieve true carbon neutrality. This is because some emissions are unavoidable, such as emissions from agriculture and deforestation. As a result, most organisations and individuals that aim to achieve net zero will need to offset some of their emissions.

Journey to carbon neutrality: Key steps and strategies

There are a number of steps that organisations and individuals can take to achieve carbon neutrality, including:

  • Emission Reduction: The primary step towards carbon neutrality is reducing emissions. This can involve adopting energy-efficient practices, transitioning to renewable energy sources, and optimising processes to minimise carbon emissions.
  • Offsetting: Despite best efforts, it’s often impossible to eliminate all emissions. In such cases, carbon neutrality is achieved by investing in offsetting measures. This can include projects like reforestation, renewable energy projects, or methane capture, which remove or reduce an equivalent amount of GHGs from the atmosphere.
  • Carbon Accounting: To become carbon neutral, rigorous accounting and tracking of emissions are essential. This process helps in identifying emission sources, measuring their impact, and determining the required offsets.
  • Certification: Many organisations seek certification from third-party agencies to verify their carbon neutrality status, providing transparency and credibility.

Measuring emissions is the first step to achieving carbon neutrality. This involves identifying all of the sources of emissions, such as energy use, transportation, and waste.

Once emissions have been measured, organisations and individuals can develop strategies to reduce them through improved energy efficiency or the use of renewable energy sources, and/or reducing transportation emissions and waste.

Once emissions have been reduced as much as possible, organisations and individuals can offset the remaining emissions by investing in projects that remove CO₂ from the atmosphere.

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Net zero ambitions: More than just zero carbon

Achieving net zero emissions is not just about reducing CO₂ emissions. It is also about addressing other climate change impacts, such as ocean acidification and biodiversity loss.

To achieve net zero emissions, organisations and individuals will need to make changes to their businesses and lifestyles, including:

  • Emission Reduction: Similar to carbon neutrality, achieving net zero begins with significant emission reduction efforts. This can include transitioning to clean energy sources, optimising transportation, and adopting energy-efficient technologies.
  • Carbon Removal: The key distinction with net zero is the emphasis on actively removing carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHGs from the atmosphere. This is typically done through technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) and direct air capture (DAC).
  • Balancing the Books: To attain net zero status, emissions must be quantified, reduced, and then balanced by removal or offsetting measures. This requires rigorous accounting and transparency.

Team up with WindsorPatania to design your net zero home or business

WindsorPatania is an architectural firm specialising in sustainable design for new builds as well as existing properties. We can help you build or modify your home to be more sustainable, provide advice on eco-friendly interiors by incorporating strategies like biophilic design, as evidenced by successful projects like Eden House.

If you would like to green your home, you’ll be glad to know that WindsorPatania offers expert sustainability appraisals.

A sustainability appraisal is a professional assessment of a property’s potential for development, with a focus on sustainability. The purpose of this appraisal is to determine the feasibility of a proposed development scheme by examining various factors, such as planning and building regulations, architectural design, and site constraints.

Our team can help you identify opportunities to make your property more sustainable, such as by improving energy efficiency, using renewable energy, or reducing water consumption. They can also provide guidance on the best way to make these improvements, taking into account the specific property and the homeowner’s budget.

If you are considering making sustainability improvements to your property, a sustainability appraisal from WindsorPatania can be a valuable tool. It can help you make informed decisions about the best way to improve your property and reduce your environmental impact.

As Ryan Windsor says, “The world is crying out for greener housing. By meeting this demand, you’ll not only get ahead of the curve, but you’ll likely also get into new and greener habits before RIBA’s recommendations become government legislation.”

Get in touch with WindsorPatania to find out more or to submit your project.

Carbon neutrality vs net zero summed up

Carbon neutrality refers to the state of emitting no more carbon dioxide (CO₂) into the atmosphere than is removed. Net zero refers to the state of balancing all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with removals.

Achieving net zero emissions is a complex challenge, but it is essential to prevent catastrophic climate change. Organisations and individuals can take a number of steps to become more sustainable, especially by working with firms like WindsorPatania that specialise in sustainable design.

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