Carbon Cheat Sheet: Understanding Carbon Jargon

Carbon Footprint T20 B826gr

There’s one word that has a habit of cropping up in every conversation about saving the planet: carbon. Whether it’s carbon footprint, carbon offsetting or CO2 compensation projects, there’s a mountain of carbon-related jargon to get your head around. 

Not only that, but it can sometimes feel like you’re back in a high school maths class. Question 1: How do you reach Net Zero? Is it A: through carbon offsetting? Or B: carbon negative schemes? What about C: climate positive action?

Confused much? You’re not alone. Research shows that even the experts are unclear about carbon reduction terminology, with two thirds of energy professionals in the UK unsure about what different terms actually mean. 

To help you out, here’s our carbon cheat sheet on the various terminology to help ‘clear the air’: 


Carbon footprint

Virtually everything has a carbon footprint. Your individual carbon footprint is the amount of carbon emitted through going about your daily life – everything from the CO2 released to heat your home to the carbon dioxide given off when you take a long-haul flight. The products we use also have footprints, which amounts to the emissions created as part of the product’s manufacturing and delivery. It’s now possible to calculate foodprints for households, businesses and even countries. The bigger the footprint, the more damage is being done. 


Carbon offsetting

The focus on carbon footprint has created an obsession with carbon offsetting. Offsetting means you buy a carbon credit to cancel out some of your footprint, allowing you to claim your carbon footprint is actually lower than it is. So a company emitting a thousand tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere could buy an equivalent measure in carbon credits and claim carbon neutrality. 


Carbon credits

Essentially, carbon credits are permits that put a dollar value on polluting the air. By buying these credits, companies in theory are financing carbon reduction projects that will help negate their emissions in the mid to long term. The organisations that sell the credits finance carbon offset projects, such as reforestation schemes that absorb energy from the atmosphere or clean energy tech to prevent further emissions. 


Carbon neutrality

So theoretically you can balance out your footprint by buying carbon credits and become carbon neutral. Sounds good in principle, right? However, it doesn’t really help the planet. A guilt-free system where companies are focused on writing off their carbon footprints with credits or selling off high polluting assets so they’re no longer on their balance sheets could actually be doing more harm than good as it removes the responsibility for the emissions. It also stops us focusing on the big picture – the total amount of carbon entering the atmosphere. Surely we can do better than that?


Net Zero

The new kid on the block in the carbon ‘hood, this term is increasingly being used at a global level to talk about a more comprehensive commitment in comparison to carbon neutrality, with countries like France, the UK and New Zealand all recently pledging to get to Net Zero by 2050. Net Zero goes beyond offsetting – it’s more like an international goal that needs cooperation from all sides. To achieve it, we need to be removing and locking carbon back into the ground where it came from. It forces countries to consider how to minimise their CO2 output in the first place, and then focus on the effectiveness of their offsetting projects to make sure they are breaking even now, not in the future.


Carbon negative / carbon positive

Here’s where it gets unnecessarily confusing. Becoming carbon negative means you are going beyond net zero – in a good way. You are putting back more carbon than you are putting out, creating positive environmental impacts by removing extra CO2 in the atmosphere. Give yourself a pat on the back, your impact is positive. However, this status is sometimes referred to as being ‘carbon positive’ or ‘climate positive’. They are all basically the same thing – a net removal of carbon dioxide. 


Still with me? In short, although carbon has become the main metric for sustainability, it’s narrowing our focus and confusing us all at the same time. You may be thinking there must be a simpler way to make the world a better place… and there is. 

At Handprint, we prefer to focus on being Planet Positive. It’s a simple goal. We think that everyone – individuals, companies and governments alike – should be talking about the positive steps they are taking to benefit the planet. 

We believe that understanding your footprint is important, but we shouldn’t get bogged down in the equations. A Planet Positive agenda broadens the conversation beyond carbon balancing and focuses on the positive handprint you leave behind. It’s an empowering idea that anyone can get behind. 

Want to start growing your own handprint? Find out how you can start making a difference here










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