Carbon Neutral Explained – All You Need to Know About Carbon Neutrality

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What does carbon neutral actually mean? How can it help you reduce your impact on our planet? Get the answers in Giki’s jargon buster

What is carbon neutral

Every year billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere. The only way to avoid this leading to accelerating climate change is to cut the amount of carbon emitted and find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere that’s already there.

“Carbon neutrality” is when all the carbon dioxide, and related greenhouse gases, that are emitted in a given period are cancelled out by removing the same amount from the atmosphere. The overall effect on the planet is therefore that there are no additions to the total amount of greenhouse gases.

 It’s also increasingly common to hear the terms “Net Zero” or “Carbon balanced” which describe the same concept.

 Unfortunately, we’re currently a long way from achieving carbon neutrality. Whilst the idea of carbon neutrality has been around for a long time, it was even the “Word of the year” in 2016, emissions have been growing at 1.5% for the last 10 years and reached 55.3 billion tonnes in 2018*. Individuals have a crucial role to play in in ensuring we reach carbon neutrality over the coming decade as they account for 70% of all emissions.

The role for individuals

To help understand the action that individuals need to take it’s useful to picture our carbon emissions as water flowing into a bath. The faster the water is flowing the quicker the bath fills up and, at the moment, we’re overfilling by 5 tonnes each per year globally. In richer countries such as the UK (9 tonnes) and the United States (15 tonnes) the figure is even larger.

 However, by turning the taps down and opening the plug hole we can get to a point where the water flows in at the same rate that it flows out. We can turn the taps down by taking many different steps from eating more plants to wasting less food or buying second hand clothes. To open the plug we need to get some help from nature by planting trees, protecting rainforests and allowing mangrove swamps and peatlands to regenerate.

 The challenge is that we’ve got just 10 years to half the water flowing into the bath and get to carbon neutrality by 2050, but ideally much sooner.

Why it’s necessary

The world is now around 1C warmer than it was 150 years ago and the effects of climate change are accelerating. However, if warming continues to 2C, or even 3C, then the changes will occur at a faster and faster rate from extreme weather events to rising sea levels and greater threats to wildlife.

 For example at 1.5C of warming 14% of the world’s population are exposed to severe heat but at 2C it jumps to 37%. Also at 2C coral reefs decline by 99% and the Artic is free of sea ice every 10 years, 10 times more than at 1.5C.**

 In short climate change doesn’t go in straight lines. People around the world are already feeling the effects of more extreme weather, rising sea levels and biodiversity loss and so emissions need to be cut by 50% by 2030 and then reach carbon neutrality as soon as possible after that.

iPad showing Giki Zero progress

How to achieve carbon neutrality

There is so much people can do to reduce their footprint and go carbon neutral. The first step is to understand how much carbon you’re “pouring into the bath” which you can do with free tools such as Giki Zero.

After that you can choose from over 100 steps that will help you reduce the amount of carbon you’re emitting. Some of the big areas to start with include:

In the home: Switch to renewable electricity, turn the heating down or just turn off the stuff you’re not using

Getting around: Give up long haul flying or maybe even take a break from it all. Biking and walking more are always good carbon savers too.

The food you eat: Try eating animal products once a day or even moving to a Plant Based diet. Going organic is also better for wildlife and soil quality.

Purchases: Try to avoid any new clothes for 3 months and take old clothes to the charity shop. For an easy started why not switch to a shampoo bar and save some plastic at the same time.

Services: don’t invest your ISA in fossil fuel companies and maybe ask your pension provider to commit to being Net Zero.

It is possible

Encouragingly it is possible to achieve a carbon footprint that’s aligned with 1.5C of warming with choices and technologies that are available today. In terms of the water flowing into the bath this would be equal to just 2.5 tonnes. It is a challenge, and it will take time but our report “Reduce, Replace, Repair” lays out how this is possible.

However, to reach carbon neutrality it’s necessary to find a way to open the plug. Currently one of the best ways to do this is with tree planting which you can do with charities such as Tree Sisters. Keep planting trees until you mange to reach zero emissions!


*UN Emissions Gap Report 2019. Figure includes land use change

** UN IPCC Special Report