Carbon 101: What's The Difference Between Carbon Negative, Climate Neutral & Carbon Positive?

Carbon 101: What's The Difference Between Carbon Negative, Climate Neutral & Carbon Positive?

This is part of our ongoing series, called DTL (that stands for Down to Learn), where we take deep dives into the odd, nuanced and mysterious world of sustainability. Each article in our series should give you a good icebreaker for your next Zoom, or perhaps even inspire you. This piece was penned by contributor Jacqueline Parisi. 

We already broke down the differences between biodegradable and compostable in an effort to debunk common myths around sustainability buzzwords. Because it's a lot easier to spot signs of “greenwashing,” which occurs when brands convey a false (or misleading) impression of environmental practices via unsubstantiated claims, when you've got the basic lay of the land.

Today, we’re taking it a step further by tackling four other common phrases: carbon neutral, climate positive, carbon negative, and carbon positive. 

Carbon neutral 

As the name suggests, carbon “neutrality” is achieved when the amount of carbon dioxide emissions is offset or eliminated in order to reach net zero. Fun fact: it was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year in 2006, but only recently has it entered the mainstream. 

The phrase is most often used by brands that have undergone an official certification process through Because when you think about it, everything that’s produced, manufactured, shipped, or purchased leaves behind a carbon trail associated with transportation, energy, agriculture, name it. So when businesses commit to carbon neutrality, it means they are doing one of two things: purchasing carbon offsets or reducing carbon emissions via alternative energy sources and industrial processes...more on this below.

Climate positive / carbon negative / carbon positive

Climate positive one-ups neutrality by not only achieving net zero carbon emissions, but ALSO working to benefit the environment by removing additional carbon dioxide. This means the same thing as carbon negative which, when you think about it, makes sense (what’s positive for the environment is negative for carbon, and vice versa). 

As if we didn’t have enough terms to consider, “carbon negative” is also interchangeable with “carbon positive” — which is so confusing, we know. But it’s primarily used as a marketing term for large buildings that produce more energy than they need and then feed that excess back into the grid in order to make positive contributions, thus “carbon positive.” If it were up to us, we’d just stick with the first two.

PREFER A VIDEO?Watch our Q&A with carbon expert Elaine Hsu.

A quick note on “certifications”

When it comes to the climate-neutral certification (or any “sustainable” stamps of approval, for that matter), it’s important to remember that a lot of small, new, female- or BIPOC-owned brands don’t have the resources to undergo the process, Goldune included. Plus, in order to be considered as "officially" climate neutral, a company must be in operation for at least one year — so be sure to support the small brands that are working hard towards sustainability because your orders are what help them get there!

The low-down on carbon offsets

“Offsetting” carbon emissions essentially entails paying to sequester (or remove) the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as your company emits, thus canceling each other out and achieving carbon neutrality. 


Carbon offsets come in the form of investments in:

  • Tree-planting/restoration projects (to prevent deforestation, which is responsible for ~10% of global greenhouse gas emissions)
  • Renewable, wind-powered energy construction (to displace energy generated by gas, coal, and other fossil fuels)
  • Landfill gas capture (to turn garbage into renewable energy)

Our two-cents:

We’re all for efforts to curb deforestation and invest in renewable energy, but not when they’re leveraged as a band-aid fix eclipsing the larger problem, which is this: as a country, we’ve got a consumption problem. We should be focused less on a “this-for-that” substitute and more on the underlying operational and supply chain hurdles that prevent us from cutting emissions directly in the first place. 

THAT is what we really need, especially considering the fact that it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. Take trees, for example. On average, a newly-planted tree can take upwards of 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that you purchased via a carbon offsetting website — and that’s only if the tree isn’t destroyed by disease, wildfires, droughts, or further deforestation. 

It’s impossible to talk about carbon offsets without also mentioning climate “colonization,” defined by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò as “the domination of less powerful countries and peoples through initiatives meant to slow the pace of global warming.” Offsetting projects are typically concentrated in southern countries, often displacing already-vulnerable communities without their consultation or consent.  

Plus, for what it’s worth, just because a company invests in carbon offsets doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sustainable. Climate-friendly, yes. But take a fast-fashion company, for example. If their sweatshop-made pants are still hitting the landfill, offsetting carbon won’t do much to compensate. 

READ MORE: Do Carbon Offsets Matter This Holiday Season? (Or Ever?)

Alternatives to carbon offsets

  • Transitioning to renewable, clean energy sources and industrial processes. Another approach to carbon neutrality is shifting to a lower carbon economy through the use of clean, renewable energy powered by hydro (i.e. water), wind, geothermal, and solar. These alternative sources won’t get you to zero, but they will substantially reduce emissions to get you as close to neutral as possible.
  • Investing in regenerative agriculture through Regeneration InternationalRegenerative agriculture is an age-old method of restoring soil’s biodiversity (and preventing further degradation) through regeneration efforts such as crop rotation, cover crops, composting, pasture cropping, and mobile animal shelters.  
  • Kelp gardening. Ditch the traditional fertilizer in favor of seaweed, which is organic and derived from a sustainable source. Because of its fibrous texture, it works wonders to boost aeration and drainage in the soil, control pests (due to the salt content), and boost germination. 

What other eco-phrases make you scratch your head? Scroll down to the contact form (or shoot us an email at to let us know! 


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