Carbon Neutral vs Net Zero: What’s The Difference?

The Eco Experts

24 out of the world’s 25 largest companies rely on carbon offsetting to be carbon neutral

A net-zero approach is a more viable way to reduce emissions than carbon neutrality

The UK is planning to reach net zero emissions by 2050

‘Carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. Both have the same goal – slowing down global warming by lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

So what’s the difference? Well, ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ refer to two different approaches for lowering carbon emissions, with net zero being considered as the more effective solution.

But there's much more to it than that. To give you a better idea, we've explained exactly what the difference is between ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’, why it matters, and analysed when the UK could reach net zero emissions.

Aerial view of a river running through a green forest

What does ‘carbon neutral’ mean?

‘Carbon neutral’ means compensating for the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced by removing an equal amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. In short, it maintains the balance to avoid increased emissions.

It’s a term often used by companies or individuals who fund and invest in carbon offset projects – schemes aimed at reducing future emissions — such as renewable energy development, reforestation plans, or carbon capture technology.

What does ‘net zero’ mean?

‘Net zero’, or ‘reaching net zero’, means reducing emission levels by at least 90% for all greenhouse gases – not just CO2 – on a large scale. The remaining 10% of emissions need to be compensated for by carbon offsetting.

The ultimate goal of net zero is to stop global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C).

Why specifically 1.5°C, and why is it so important? Rising global temperatures are already causing more extreme weather and rising sea levels, all of which are dangerous for humans and the natural environment.

While a 1.5°C increase isn’t great, it was the temperature agreed upon by climate scientists and governments in the 2015 Paris Agreement to avoid even more damage, according to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

What are the differences between ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’?

The key difference between ‘net zero’ and ‘carbon neutral’ is that the aim of net zero is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero. However, being carbon neutral is more about compensating for CO2 emissions with carbon offsetting.

Carbon neutrality is also usually talked about on a smaller scale, by companies or businesses who want to limit or reduce their emissions. Net zero, on the other hand, is a global objective that will be achieved through the collective efforts of governments and the private sector.

Why is this distinction important?

The distinction between carbon neutral and net zero is important, because focusing on becoming net zero is a surer way to reduce global emissions than trying to be carbon neutral.

Although carbon neutrality can reduce emissions, it also relies heavily on carbon offsets, which environmental organisations, such as Greenpeace, argue do not work.

Investigations by ProPublica and The Guardian found that the impact of many major carbon offset schemes, particularly those that involve reforestation, was overestimated.

This means large amounts of CO2 emissions are not actually being compensated for, if at all. A worrying thought when you consider that 24 out of 25 of the world’s largest companies – often the biggest emitters – rely on carbon offsetting to achieve their carbon neutrality pledges.

Another criticism of the ‘carbon neutral’ mentality is that it gives companies and individuals a free pass to keep producing emissions, instead of focusing on reducing or eliminating them.

Carbon offsetting also pushes the burden of responsibility onto poorer countries, where many carbon offset programmes are located. This is particularly problematic when you consider that these nations tend to produce fewer emissions than wealthy countries, where the companies that fund the carbon offset programmes are typically based.

In short, instead of using unreliable carbon offset schemes to balance out CO2 emissions, it’s much better to first focus on reducing emissions to net zero levels. It will be much easier to reach carbon neutrality through carbon offsetting when emissions levels are already close to zero.

Want to know more? Read about seven reasons why carbon offsetting doesn't work on our page.

When will the UK become net zero?

The UK government passed legislation in 2019, requiring it to reach net zero by 2050. It defines ‘net zero’ as a 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to 1990 levels. It also pledged to cut emissions by 68% by 2030 in the 2015 Paris Agreement, although so far it’s not on track to meet these targets.

But how exactly is the government planning to reach net zero? The latest 2023 strategy outlines its measures, which include:

  • Decarbonising the UK’s energy sector by investing in renewable energy, such as wind, solar, hydrogen, and nuclear power
  • Investing in carbon capture technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere
  • Making UK homes more energy efficient, which includes offering grants to homeowners for green tech, such as solar panel grants and heat pump grants
  • Increasing the demand for electric vehicles by setting up more charging points
  • Funding research to develop sustainable aviation
  • Ending deforestation in the UK, and planting more trees

However, the government's own research shows that the path to net zero might already be delayed, and that the UK would only meet 92% of its 2030 targets. The Green Alliance suggests this figure is even lower, and that new UK policies only cover around 87% of all emissions reductions for its 2030 target.

Delays in reaching 2030 targets means that the UK could fail to reach its net zero goal by 2050. That being said, if the government succeeds with all its measures, emissions will still be significantly reduced by 2050.


To slow down global warming, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. And aiming to be ‘net zero’ or ‘carbon neutral’ are both ways to achieve this.

But unfortunately, many large companies claiming to be ‘carbon neutral’ rely far too much on ineffective carbon offsetting strategies, which don’t actually balance out their emissions.

This isn’t to say that carbon neutrality is bad, it’s actually a byproduct of reaching net zero. But it's better to focus on reducing emissions to nearly zero first, because it's much easier to offset emissions when they’re already low.

Written by:
Tatiana has written about multiple environmental topics, including heat pumps, energy-efficient household products, and solar panels. She is dedicated to demystifying green tech to make eco-friendly living more accessible.
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