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The Problem Of Defining Carbon Neutral

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 21 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Carbon Footprint Carbon Footprints

The concept of being carbon neutral is relatively simple. To be carbon neutral, an individual or a household or a company must not release into the environment more carbon than they lock up. At its simplest, this means not using any carbon at all. In the distant past, a farmer in medieval times would have had no trouble being carbon neutral if he just used local, quickly replenished wood for fuel.

Today, it is much more difficult because modern society is now completely dependent on fossil fuels for heating, lighting, power and modern materials. To be carbon neutral is still possible but it involves offsetting the carbon that you use by activities that lock up carbon – the obvious cliché is planting a tree. In practice, becoming carbon neutral is much more complicated but most governments in the world are encouraging this as a measure to combat global warming and climate change.

A Term in Common Use

The term carbon neutral is now in such common use that it is used very loosely. The UK government have actually decided that defining the term carbon neutral properly is so important, they intend to launch an official consultation. The Department of Energy and Climate Change are to investigate an accepted definition and discuss how this is applied, particularly to companies. Some companies that currently claim they are carbon neutral may need to revise their practices to fit in with the officially accepted definition. By registering and complying with the new scheme, companies will then be able to display a ‘quality mark’ showing that they are carbon neutral according to a definition that fulfils the standards of Kyoto.

Is Carbon Neutral the Right Term?

Some experts are suggesting that it is not enough just to consider becoming carbon neutral and to concentrate only on the carbon footprint of a business, company or building. The term ecological footprint has been coined to describe the overall impact that an activity has on the environment for all sorts of emissions, not just carbon dioxide. Calculating the ecological footprint of an activity also involves looking at all the indirect processes that contribute to it – the emissions of every supplier to a particular company, for example, contribute to the ecological footprint of the company being supplied.

Detailed Assessments

When you begin to look into the definition of the terms carbon neutral and carbon footprint, the detail that is required is amazing. An official publication by one UK environmental consultancy company discussed the environmental impact of a loaf of bread. It looks into all the environmental costs of producing the bread, considering all the companies that supply the different ingredients, the actual manufacturing process, how the loaf is transported to its point of sale and then onto the place where it finally gets eaten. Investigations like this could be infinite but it seems sensible to draw up accepted boundaries. The important thing is to set some ground rules so that different investigations into different processes can be compared.

Using Carbon Offsets

In order to become carbon neutral, any company must invest in carbon offsets. These could be set up by the company itself but more usually they would be organised through a company specialised in carbon offset projects and their procurement. No business can operate without producing carbon and other emissions, but they can calculate the level of those emissions and then contribute to projects that at least cancel them out. This area is fraught with difficulty at the moment, because of the lack of a widely accepted definition of what exactly being carbon neutral means.

Once a much better definition has been agreed, it will become easier to regulate carbon offset projects and to provide ways for companies to be able to decide which projects do truly fulfil their needs. Global regulations will be difficult to set up and also to police but creating some standards for carbon offset projects, particularly those being set up in the developing world, is going to be crucial in the next few years.

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