In recent years, there has been a lot of interest in becoming ‘carbon neutral’. Companies, cities, and even countries have made vows to become carbon neutral in the near future. But what does it actually mean to be carbon neutral, and what does it require for a company to attain a net zero carbon footprint?Before we go into the different strategies, let’s start with a definition: Being carbon neutral means that you offset or sequester as much carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses) as you emit. So, what does offset or sequester mean? Sequester means that you absorb and store carbon somewhere, where it can’t reach the atmosphere, where it would act as a greenhouse gas and contribute to global warming. Offset means that you balance out unavoidable carbon emissions by sequestering an amount of carbon equal to what you emit.So, now that we’ve got a definition of things, what does it actually entail for a company to be carbon neutral? There are two strategies for becoming carbon neutral: reducing activities that lead to emissions and offsetting emissions that cannot be avoided.Reducing, reusing, and recycling your way to carbon neutrality If a company wants to become carbon neutral, the most obvious strategy is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide the company emits through all of its activities. Almost everything a modern company engages in directly or indirectly results in some emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So what can be done about this?For starters, a huge source of carbon emissions is production. Making most modern products requires power, which often comes from non-renewable energy sources, such as coal or natural gas, which release carbon dioxide when burned. But the emissions don’t end at production. When products reach the end of their lifespans, they are often destroyed through burning at high temperatures, which also uses a lot of power. Additionally, transporting products to their end user, often halfway across the globe uses energy in the form of gasoline-powered vehicles that also emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And finally, company buildings use energy for things like heating and electric lighting.All of these activities result in carbon emissions, which have potential for reduction. The emissions from production can be mitigated by recycling materials. The need to transport products far can be eliminated by moving production closer to the final location of the product’s intended use. And finally, buildings can be self-sufficient with electricity through wind or solar power.Pulling unavoidable emissions out of the air However, while reducing emissions as much as possible is the most obvious and best solution, completely avoiding carbon emissions is still close to impossible for most companies. Which brings us to strategy number two: carbon offsetting. If you can’t completely eliminate carbon emissions, then the second best option is to actually take the carbon out of the air and store it away from the atmosphere, preventing it from contributing to global warming.A multitude of methods, both natural and artificial, are used to capture and contain carbon dioxide, most often either in plants, animals, in the earth or in the sea. For example, it’s possible to inject fluid carbon dioxide into the ground, storing it in empty oil or gas deposits or in rock deep underground.More natural approaches have also been tested. Like all animals, plankton absorb carbon dioxide. And though tiny, the microscopic critters make up the largest living biomass in the ocean, and experiments have shown that growing the population of plankton increases the amount of carbon absorbed in the world’s oceans.However, one of the most widespread methods used for carbon offsetting is reforestation. When trees and other plants grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air, which they then store in the wood, leaves and roots. In fact, 50% of the weight of a tree is composed of carbon, so it’s easy to see how planting trees can reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. In the past 40 years, 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed, mostly to make room for livestock. This has caused a lot of carbon dioxide to be released from the trees that once grew here. Right now a project is under way to replant 73 million trees on former forest areas that have been cleared to make room for grazing livestock.The trouble with offsetting…However, carbon offsetting is not a magic bullet for solving global warming. Though well-meaning, companies providing carbon offsetting services through carbon credits have often been criticized for being unreliable or ineffective. Therefore, reducing emissions as much as possible should always be the top priority for companies seeking carbon neutrality, and offsetting should only be thought of as a backup for emissions that are impossible or highly impractical to avoid.

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