; Climate change words: sustainability terms and definitions

“Climate positive”, “carbon neutral”, “carbon positive” we all heard many times these terms, but what is the meaning of these words? What is the difference between them?  What are good terms to use when we are talking about taking bold climate actions and what’s just pure marketing?

Let’s take a look at the definitions!

Although the concepts of carbon neutrality and climate positivity/carbon negativity have been around for a while– in 2006, the Oxford Dictionaries made the term “carbon-neutral” word of the year in the United States.

According to PAS 2060 standard, the internationally recognised specification for carbon neutrality, developed by BSI, carbon-neutrality means “not adding new greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the atmosphere. Where emissions continue, they must be offset by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere, for example through carbon capture and reforestation that is supported by carbon credit schemes.”

Climate-neutrality, on the other hand, is the mitigation of all greenhouse gases (GHG), not just carbon dioxide. The Kyoto Protocol, an environmental agreement adopted by many of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1997 to curb global warming, covers seven greenhouse gases: the non-fluorinated gases (carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) ) and the fluorinated gases (hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)).

Climate positive or carbon negative, both terms describe a state of removing more GHGs than one emits after reducing its emissions across all scopes to a minimum level that is aligned with science.

Carbon negative means the same thing as “climate positive”. Carbon positive is how organisations describe climate positive and carbon negative. It is mainly a marketing term, and sometimes confusing.

But why are the terms so important anyway?

Like in data analysis, it is key to compare units to units. In this case, using the appropriate terms and understanding their meaning can allow us to compare the efforts of nations, organizations, and individuals. Therefore, it is key to not create new definitions, as they do not define properly your efforts in terms of climate action.

To be credible, sustainability communications always need to be clear about what’s actually being done: what GHGs are included in the emission calculations, how the emissions are compensated, and how compensation fits into emission reduction strategy. So, before making statements, it is recommended to rely on standards, and to avoid using non-standardised terms that means no impact for the environment, such as ‘zero-carbon’, ‘carbon-free’, ‘carbon-negative’ or ‘carbon/climate positive’. Claims should illustrate that your efforts place you on a trajectory in line with robust long-term goals of net-zero emissions, such as: ‘’On a path to net zero’’ or ‘’Aligned with the net-zero ambition’’ ‘’Compatible with the global net-zero target’’ ‘’Contributing to the net-zero transition’’. Moreover, monitoring the legislation development to avoid legal risks is also highly recommended.

Conclusion? Using the correct terminology and be very transparent about the climate actions can make the difference between real action to combat the climate change and greenwashing.

Here’s a tip from us, what we should your company claim or not claim?