Carbon jargon: net zero, offsetting, science-based targets – what does it all mean?

UK governments are legally committed to reduce carbon emissions to ‘net zero’ – by 2045 in Scotland and by 2050 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For all businesses this means a significant reduction in emissions. For every kilogram of carbon that cannot be reduced, another must be removed.

Carbon neutral

Being ‘carbon neutral’ (or ‘climate neutral’) is another way of saying net zero. Carbon neutrality means keeping a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing it from the atmosphere in carbon sinks such as forests or oceans.

Climate neutrality is a state in which human activities have no net effect on the climate system.

Carbon footprint

The net total amount of carbon emissions (or ‘greenhouse gases’) directly and indirectly released by a business, including in their supply chain.

Carbon footprints are also used to describe emissions associated with products or services.

Science-based targets

Science based targets (SBT) show how much a business’s carbon emissions need to reduce, and how quickly, to be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The focus is on absolute reductions rather than using carbon offsets. The aim is a 50% cut in emissions by 2030.

Carbon offsetting

For carbon emissions that haven’t yet been eliminated, residual emissions can be compensated for by paying for an equivalent amount to be reduced or removed elsewhere.

This is often in the form of environmental projects such as reforestation or the installation of solar panels.

Carbon offsets are not a substitution for taking action to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions from a business.

Carbon credits

Carbon offset projects generate carbon credits. Each carbon credit is equivalent to one tonne of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent amount of another greenhouse gas that has been removed from the atmosphere.

Businesses that claim carbon neutral status often purchase credits equivalent to their net emissions and retire the credits through registries.

There is scepticism around the quality of some offsetting projects but when done well they support local economies and fund impactful work.


Sustainability means operating in a way that allows the Earth’s environment to continue to sustain life indefinitely.

Greenhouse gases (GHGs)

Greenhouse gases are emissions that contribute to climate change, such as carbon dioxide or methane released into the atmosphere by human activity.

Examples of activities which contribute to greenhouse gases are:

  • electricity from fossil fuel power stations
  • burning gas for heating
  • driving a petrol or diesel fuelled car

Within the UK it is estimated that business activities account for about half of all emissions.

Find out how your business can reduce its emissions.