What does it mean to be carbon neutral?
Simply put, carbon-neutral means not leaving a Scope 1-3 carbon footprint on the planet. A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by any given person, product, process, or activity based on the Scope 1-3 measurements defined by the World Resources Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol. When a product is carbon neutral, it means all the materials and components plus the entire manufacturing process do not leave a carbon footprint—meaning it did not have virtually any impact on climate change.
What makes up a carbon footprint?
The carbon footprint of a product begins as soon as a natural resource is pulled from the earth. The carbon footprint grows as that material is transported, refined, joined with other resources, molded, and shaped into a product. In essence, every time energy is used or a human hand touches it, the carbon footprint increases.
About 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels. Therefore, when energy involving fossil fuels is used to create a product, it tends to make up a large part of the carbon footprint. Any energy that comes from renewable sources like solar, wind, hydro, or biogas is not part of a carbon footprint.
Some materials, like concrete, take a great deal of energy to produce. In the case of concrete, this is because the limestone must be heated up to a very high temperature. If the energy used to do this comes from fossil fuels, it means the material will have a high carbon footprint.
Greenhouse gasses are also emitted by the actual production of certain materials, in addition to the greenhouse gasses emitted by the energy used in the production process. For example, the process of producing clinkers from limestone in the creation of concrete emits greenhouse gasses, in addition to the gasses emitted by the energy used to heat the limestone. Because of this, concrete has one of the highest carbon footprints when it comes to construction material. (Aluminum has the highest.)
How do you calculate carbon neutral?
When it comes to businesses, carbon footprints are evaluated based on the past year of activity. If a business is certified carbon neutral, that means their activities and operations over the past year did not leave a carbon footprint.
Of course, it is generally not possible in today’s world to completely eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions from your activities and operations. You can mitigate your emissions as much as you can through environmentally conscious choices like energy efficiency measures and renewable energy, but you almost certainly won’t be able to completely eliminate them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be carbon neutral! It just means you have to offset the emissions you create through carbon mitigation programs and purchasing certified carbon offsets—something I’ll discuss more in an upcoming blog post.
Today, there are a number of organizations that specialize in certifying carbon neutrality, along with providing auditing and consulting services to aid in reporting and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Many even have online tools for calculating carbon footprints. You can even measure your carbon footprint as an individual, by entering your energy usage, what kind of car you have, how much gas you use, how much you travel, what appliances you have in your house, etc., as well as any offsets—things you do to eliminate greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. If you adjusted all of these factors to eliminate your carbon footprint, you could be certified as a carbon-neutral individual!
Interested in learning more about carbon neutrality and an actionable solution and model for reducing our carbon footprint? Check out my book, “Decarbonize the World“. Available now!
 US Energy Information Administration, “Where Greenhouse Gases Come From,” August 11, 2020, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/energy-and-the-environment/where-greenhouse-gases-come-from.php.