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Demystifying Carbon Neutrality



At this point, everyone knows at least a little about climate change. Buzzwords like “sustainability,” “carbon neutral,” and “environmentally-friendly” have flooded the internet. These words can be difficult to define because modern marketing techniques often twist them to suit their own needs.

Carbon neutrality is the perfect example. A company or individual is carbon neutral when they offset their carbon dioxide emissions so that the total net emissions for the person or group equals zero.

As part of their green initiatives, more and more companies are going carbon neutral. But going carbon neutral is not the same as reducing the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere. A company can claim carbon neutrality by investing in projects that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere without making any changes to the amount of fossil fuels they burn.

Of course, carbon dioxide is a natural and essential part of human life. Every breath we take produces carbon dioxide. However, environmental leaders warn that if we do not find ways to stop burning fossil fuels, global warming will reach “the point of no return” as soon as 2042.

So the question has to be asked. Is the term carbon neutral nothing more than a marketing scheme? Does going carbon-neutral help the environment? Let’s expose some of the common carbon-neutral misconceptions to see if this environmental buzzword is worth the effort or simply another scheme to soothe the masses.

Misconception 1: Carbon neutral is the same as environmentally-friendly.

Often carbon neutrality is portrayed as a green initiative, but this can be misleading. A company can claim carbon neutrality without actually making any changes to its infrastructure. For example, Delta airline has a new feature on their website that allows you to calculate the carbon emissions from your flight and allows you to donate money to a carbon offset program of your choosing.

Unfortunately, Delta and other carbon-neutral airlines have made it clear that the technology to switch from fossil fuels to biofuels or batteries is still a long way off. Instead, airlines invest the money in carbon sinks. Carbon sinks remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they put out. Forests are a natural carbon sink since trees absorb carbon dioxide and expel oxygen in their place.

Carbon sinks are the equivalent of slapping a band-aid on a gaping flesh wound. Airlines still produce too much carbon dioxide, but investing in carbon sinks allows them to market themselves as carbon neutral. However, studies have shown that companies that invested in carbon neutrality either use carbon offsetting to eliminate carbon usage that they cannot eliminate internally or to create a price on carbon to incentivize less carbon usage in the future. This implies that companies that advertise carbon neutrality are taking climate change seriously.

air travel airline carbon footprint

Misconception 2: Planting trees can offset carbon use.

The idea that trees could save us from our carbon addiction is an appealing one. In an ideal world, we could plant enough trees to use fossil fuels without any infrastructure changes. This misconception is overwhelmingly false. While it is true that planting trees can help us reduce carbon in the atmosphere, that doesn’t negate the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

If the point of no return is only 21 years away, we do not have time to wait for trees to save us. New forests take about 100 years to mature. Not only that, but healthy forests require diversity. Most carbon sink projects are not focused on creating a robust ecosystem. Instead, they focus on planting as many of the same trees as possible, otherwise known as a monoculture. Scientists do not know if monoculture forests will be as productive at absorbing carbon as the old ones.

Instead of planting new forests, we should focus on preserving the forests we already have. Unfortunately, preserving forests appears next to impossible since 18 million acres of forest are lost every year due to human expansion.

Relying on the trees to save us is outdated and inefficient. Trees cannot reverse climate change on their own. Planting new trees can reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but we should be focusing our efforts on finding a way to reduce the release of greenhouse gases we are using right now.

Misconception 3: Renewable energy is carbon neutral.

Committing to renewable energy seems like the logical next step. The benefits of switching from fossil fuels to renewable resources like solar or wind are well-documented. However, renewable energy still has a long way to go before it can completely offset our carbon footprint.

Many corporations who claim to use 100% renewable energy do not use it 100% of the time. To say that they use 100% renewable energy, they need to purchase enough renewable energy to match their yearly energy usage. When it comes to solar energy, power can only be generated in the hours when the sun is shining. Any excess energy gets stored in the local power grid for later use.

If the grid does not have enough storage for renewable energy storage or energy generations are too small, the grid uses electricity from fossil fuels to supplement it. The efficiency of your local power grid and how often you calculate your energy usage are both vitally important when calculating the actual benefits of renewable energy.

Our very infrastructure needs an upgrade if we want to effect change on a large enough scale. Over 50 percent of carbon emissions in the United States come from two sources: 1) power plants that supply electricity and heat and 2) transportation. By focusing on improving these two sources, we could dramatically reduce our carbon emissions on a large scale.

 solar power alternative energy carbon footprint

Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is not something quick or easy. We can make small changes to our daily carbon output by choosing businesses that act responsibly, buying fuel-efficient cars, and selecting electricity companies that use green sources like wind or water power. But the modifications necessary to stop global warming require massive changes to US infrastructure and policies.

Offsetting carbon output is only a piece of the puzzle. Instead of focusing on breaking even, we need to commit to actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

You can start by doing research. What is your contribution, and what changes can you make as an individual? Calculating your carbon footprint is easier than ever before. The EPA has an easy-to-use calculator that can show your exact carbon output.

The EPA’s calculator also has tools that show how much carbon you can offset by introducing energy-saving methods into your homes, such as using energy-efficient light bulbs or recycling. You can also improve your carbon footprint by reducing the energy you use to heat/cool your home, buying an environmentally-friendly car, using public transportation, and reducing waste.

Increasing demand for environmentally-friendly heating and transportation has already begun to effect change. We can no longer do the minimum amount to get by, and that includes going carbon neutral. Carbon neutrality is not enough to stop global warming. We need to focus on actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere instead of breaking even. We must hold ourselves and corporations responsible for the state of the world, and only then will we be ready to make the necessary changes that will save our planet.






About the Writer

Emma Matthies is a lover of stories, nature, and people. When she is not reading or writing, she is spending time in the great outdoors, baking, practicing yoga, and having adventures. Read more on her blog.

Profile Picture by Ville Heikkinen sourced from iStock.