Is ‘carbon neutrality’ anything more than a catchy marketing slogan?

A better alternative is the more closely defined idea of net zero emissions

Organisations everywhere are jostling to trumpet their sustainable credentials and declare their carbon status. Illustration: iStock

Organisations everywhere are jostling to trumpet their sustainable credentials and declare their carbon status. Illustration: iStock

 

The rush is on among State agencies to be the first to officially declare “carbon neutral” status. The soon-to-be-restructured Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) on Monday declared its intention to achieve this status by 2025.

But what, if anything, does it really mean to be carbon neutral? And is it much more than corporate marketing?

To be carbon neutral, an organisation can pay for credits derived from environmental projects such as tree planting, for example, to “offset” any carbon produced by the organisation’s core activities. Of course, it benefits an organisation to reduce its carbon emissions in real terms before turning to offsets, as this reduces the cost of achieving so-called neutral status.

But the knowledge that an organisation can effectively buy its way out of trouble, by paying for offsets, inherently counters the incentive to aggressively reduce real emissions. It is easier to pay for forgiveness than to reduce sin.

A better and more sustainable alternative to the nebulous concept of carbon neutrality is the more closely defined idea of “net zero emissions”. It is better tied to measuring and then actually limiting emissions from core operations, instead of paying for offsets.

But as a marketing slogan, net-zero emissions is less catchy than carbon neutral, which might help to explain why it is less popular.

In the meantime, organisations everywhere are jostling to trumpet their sustainable credentials and declare their carbon status. The corporate zeitgeist is now a stream of plan launches and glossy reports, press releases and eager public statements.

If organisations put as much effort into actually reducing their real carbon emissions as they do into talking about the concept, maybe there is a chance of limiting global warming sufficiently to prevent catastrophic damage to the planet. If it is all just corporate marketing, there will be further reckonings ahead.

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