What Is Carbon-Neutral?

When the amount of carbon dioxide a person or organization emits into the atmosphere is equal to the amount they remove, they are said to be carbon-neutral, because their overall carbon-dioxide contribution is zero.

Of course, not all carbon dioxide is bad. After all, it is naturally produced during the respiration process of all animals on earth, including humans, and plants need it for photosynthesis. When companies or governments talk about carbon neutrality, they are referring to a specific category of carbon production: the carbon that is released from burning fossil fuels.

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years. When carbon dioxide builds up in our atmosphere, it can trap heat, much like the glass walls in a greenhouse do.

To combat the impact of manmade greenhouse gas production, organizations in a wide range of industries have launched projects to reduce and, in some cases, eliminate their carbon dioxide emissions. The explosion of interest in the environmental movement has spawned a whole new vocabulary to describe the range of carbon classifications.

New terms

  • Carbon-negative: When the amount of carbon dioxide emissions an organization removes from the atmosphere is greater than the amount it generates, it becomes carbon-negative. If a business produced one metric ton of carbon dioxide over the course of a month but also removed two metric tons in the same time period, it would be considered carbon-negative.

    One of the most common ways for businesses to compensate for their carbon dioxide emissions is by enabling forest growth. The European Union estimates that trees absorb nearly 9 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions every year. Many businesses have annual tree-planting initiatives to help reduce carbon pollution.
  • Zero carbon: If an organization could avoid adding any carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at all, it would be classified as zero carbon. Currently, this is only a theoretical concept and not yet feasible.
  • Carbon offsets: Activities that lower carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions can be converted into tradeable rights that are bought and sold as certificates. An organization that buys these certificates is essentially funding projects that fight climate change, but without lowering its own emissions. An organization might invest in the installation of a wind or solar farm that will replace a coal-fired power plant. In this way, the purchase is said to “offset” the buyer’s own emissions with an equal amount of reductions elsewhere.
  • Net zero: When an organization offsets its carbon emissions by the same amount it generates, it is considered net zero. This can be achieved through efforts within the organization to reduce carbon pollution, such as participating in tree-planting programs or purchasing carbon offsets, or through a combination of such efforts.

Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is only part of the equation. To reach the goal of carbon neutrality requires a dramatic reduction in the amount of greenhouse gasses generated each year.

Replacing conventional cars and trucks with electric vehicles (EVs) will have a big impact. Depending on electrical sources, an EV typically produces only about one-third the amount of carbon dioxide of a gasoline-powered vehicle, according to research by the Union of Concerned Scientists that focused on emissions in the United States. Another study compared conventional vehicles with EVs in Europe and found that EVs reduce emissions by up to 80 percent.

Aggressive target dates

A long list of companies, including Aptiv, have set target dates to achieve carbon neutrality using these carbon concepts. Most have set carbon-neutral target dates over the next 10 to 30 years. In the automotive industry, Ford and Volkwagen expect to be carbon-neutral by 2050, and Volvo Cars plans to become a “climate neutral” company by 2040.

Earlier this year, Aptiv President and CEO Kevin Clark announced the company’s pledge to have all operations in 44 countries powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Aptiv expects its entire product portfolio, from source to disposal, to be carbon-neutral by 2040.

To learn more, check out “Aptiv’s Road to Carbon Neutrality.”