With COP26 fast approaching (31 October 2021 – 12 November 2021), we have put together a quick guide to some of the key words and phrases in the language of climate change and related to the concept of ‘carbon neutrality’ and ‘net zero carbon’.
If you have ever looked into this, it is reasonable to say:
there is considerable nuance in the meaning of some of these words and phrases; and
meanings can evolve. Each word or phrase needs to be read in context and with sympathy to when it was written.
Because of this care needs to be taken around word choice and the context in which the words appear.
As a starting point we have used a Glossary of words and phrases prepared in 2021 by the IPCC. The definitions appear in in italics. The full reference for the Glossary is at the end.
This article is not advocating a particular meaning, rather it is focussed on alerting you to the subtle shifts in language depending on word choice and context.
The following are some key words and phrases. Glossary are in italics.
Resulting from or produced by human activities.
Condition in which anthropogenic CO2 emissions associated with a subject are balanced by anthropogenic CO2 removals. The subject can be an entity such as a country, an organisation, a district or a commodity, or an activity such as a service and an event. Carbon neutrality is often assessed over the life cycle including indirect (“scope 3”) emissions, but can also be limited to the emissions and removals, over a specified period, for which the subject has direct control, as determined by the relevant scheme.
Note 1: Carbon neutrality and net zero CO2 emissions are overlapping concepts. The concepts can be applied at global or sub-global scales (e.g., regional, national and sub-national). At a global scale, the terms carbon neutrality and net zero CO2 emissions are equivalent. At sub-global scales, net zero CO2 emissions is generally applied to emissions and removals under direct control or territorial responsibility of the reporting entity, while carbon neutrality generally includes emissions and removals within and beyond the direct control or territorial responsibility of the reporting entity. Accounting rules specified by GHG programmes or schemes can have a significant influence on the quantification of relevant CO2 emissions and removals.
Note 2: In some cases achieving carbon neutrality may rely on the supplementary use of offsets to balance emissions that remain after actions by the reporting entity are taken into account.
Anthropogenic activities removing CO2 from the atmosphere and durably storing it in geological, terrestrial, or ocean reservoirs, or in products. It includes existing and potential anthropogenic enhancement of biological or geochemical sinks and direct air capture and storage, but excludes natural CO2 uptake not directly caused by human activities.
Means ‘conference of the parties’. The ‘parties’ are the parties to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Australia is a ‘party’. COP26 literally means the 26 conference of the parties. For reference, Kyoto Protocol was COP3 and the Paris Agreement – COP21.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Established by the United Nations Environment Program and World Meteorological Organisation in 1988. Endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1988.
Net Zero Co2 emissions
Condition in which anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are balanced by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period.
Note: Carbon neutrality and net zero CO2 emissions are overlapping concepts. The concepts can be applied at global or sub-global scales (e.g., regional, national and sub-national). At a global scale, the terms carbon neutrality and net zero CO2 emissions are equivalent. At sub-global scales, net zero CO2 emissions is generally applied to emissions and removals under direct control or territorial responsibility of the reporting entity, while carbon neutrality generally includes emissions and removals within and beyond the direct control or territorial responsibility of the reporting entity. Accounting rules specified by GHG programmes or schemes can have a significant influence on the quantification of relevant CO2 emissions and removals.
(generally) greenhouse gas emissions from sources that are owned or controlled. For example, emissions from a company vehicle.
(generally) greenhouse gas emissions from the generation of purchased electricity. For example, emissions from electricity generated at a coal fired power station that is used to charge a company electric vehicle.
(generally) greenhouse gas emissions that are indirect or a consequence of activities but occur from sources not owned or controlled. For example, the use of purchased coal in a power station.
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Entered into force on 21 March 1994. There are 197 Parties. Australia is a party.
The following are some thoughts on the nuances of the Glossary definitions.
At a global scale, the phrases ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero carbon’ appears to be generally the same.
However, when the terms are used at a company level or a country level, the terms can have a different meaning. The Glossary definition points to a difference in meaning depending upon the as a consequence of the way emissions are counted. In particular, ‘carbon neutral’ implies the inclusion of Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions. In contrast, ‘net zero carbon’ implies Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions only.
Context is therefore very important and as the Glossary points out, accounting rules can have an influence over the meaning.
The word ‘emissions’ alone and unqualified by the word CO2 can have a different meaning to ‘CO2 emissions’.
In summary ‘emissions’ tends to mean all greenhouse gas emissions. CO2 is but one of a number of greenhouses gases that includes nitrous oxide, methane and ozone. CO2 accounts for roughly 65% of global greenhouse gas emissions (US – EPA).
This means that
‘net zero carbon’ can have a different meaning to ‘net zero’ depending on whether the context implies it is just referring to carbon (or not); and
‘carbon neutral’ can have a different meaning to ‘net zero emissions’ depending again on context.
The phrases ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero carbon’ are often associated with time frames.
There are (at least) two timeframes to be mindful of.
The first is the target timeframe. For example, we will be ‘carbon neutral by 2050’.
The second is the accounting period. That is, the period over which the assessment of emissions balanced against removals is undertaken. It is most likely over a year. However, it could also be a much longer period. For example, the specified period could be since the incorporation of a company.
The word ‘net’ is important as it permits the balance between emissions and removals.
This means that there can be a difference between ‘zero carbon’ as opposed to ‘net zero carbon’. Zero carbon implies no CO2 emissions whereas ‘net zero carbon’ implies that there will be a balance of emissions and removals to be ‘net’ zero.
IPCC, 2021: Annex VII: Glossary [Matthews, J. B. R., J. S. Fuglestvedt, V. Masson-Delmotte, V. Möller, C. Méndez, R. van Diemen, A. Reisinger, S. Semenov (ed.)]. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.
Given the sensitivity of the subject matter and the speed of change in this area, it would be wise to continually review these meanings to ensure that the language used remains contemporary and consistent with any stated objective.
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