Carbon neutral in the UK: Meaning and examples
As people around the world have become more aware of global warming and climate change, governments and businesses are making pledges to reduce their carbon emissions and become carbon neutral by the middle of this century. But what does that mean exactly? And how can it be achieved? In this article, we’ll look at the meaning of carbon neutral and some examples of what is happening in the UK.
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What does carbon neutral mean?
Carbon neutral has been an increasingly popular term used by businesses and governments as a way of explaining that the climate efforts they are making are having a positive impact. But what does it actually mean? The carbon neutral definition is, according to the European Parliament, when a company, process, or product, balances their carbon emissions and compensates for what they have produced via carbon offsetting projects.
It is important to remember that the carbon neutral meaning is not the same as carbon free. Carbon-free products, services, and companies are those that do not release any carbon into the atmosphere at any stage, including during the manufacturing, production, or operational process.
Carbon neutral vs net zero: What is the difference? While carbon neutral means any CO2 released into the atmosphere is balanced out by carbon offsetting activities, net zero means there are no carbon emissions released into the atmosphere.
Are biofuels carbon neutral?
As the debate rages on over how best to tackle climate change, much discussion has been had about the use of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels, which are very heavy in carbon emissions and contribute to the ever-changing environment we experience today. Biofuels are fuels produced from plant material. Examples of biofuels include biodiesel, which is made from rapeseed oil and can be used in a diesel engine without having to alter it, or bioethanol, which is made from fermented sugar.
But are these types of fuels carbon neutral? While they produce less carbon dioxide than their traditional fossil fuel counterparts, unfortunately the answer is no, because of the emissions involved in the production process, such as the heavy use of fertiliser for crop growth.
What is the UK’s carbon neutral target?
In November 2021, the UK hosted the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, in which governments from across the world came together to discuss ways to tackle the climate change issue on a global level. Some of the key issues discussed focused on four areas:
- Reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 and keeping global warming below +1.5 °C;
- Taking action to protect communities and natural habitats, particularly those most threatened by climate change issues such as desertification;
- Increase funding and make it more available to help achieve the first two goals;
- Working together to achieve the goals: without helping and supporting each other in climate action, the changes needed to be made to improve our ecosystems and environment will only become harder.
In the lead up to the summit, the UK government revealed its plans on how it will meet its net zero emissions goal by 2050. Some the main ways it will reach its target are:
- Fully decarbonising the power sector by 2035, encouraging homeowners to switch to green energy sources, and investing in solar and wind energy;
- Investment in green public transport systems - both rail and bus services - as well as increasing the amount of cycle networks across the UK;
- Improving infrastructure to encourage the use of electric cars, including the installation of charging points across the country;
- Restoring peatland and forests and creating more green spaces.
Carbon neutral cities examples
A report by the Coalition or Urban Transitions, showed that if governments took action to reduce carbon emissions in our cities, such as investment in clean waste management systems, low-carbon technology for buildings, and transport, emissions could be reduced by as much as 90%.
In the UK, there are three cities leading the way when it comes to becoming carbon neutral:
- Nottingham: the city council has set itself a target of becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2028, the earliest date yet by any council in the UK. In order to do so, it has already implemented many schemes including investment in a fleet of hydrogen and biogas buses, the installation of an energy management and storage facility including solar panels and a large battery to store energy, and retrofitting housing stock with clean and energy-efficient heating systems.
- Bristol: the city was the first in the UK to declare a climate emergency and has the lowest carbon footprint of any city across the country. The council has set itself a target to be carbon neutral by 2025 in all its activities, and as a city, by 2030. The city council is partnering with local businesses and the universities in the area on energy investment schemes, while there is also a strong focus on the provision of charging points for electric cars.
- Oxford: Like Bristol, the city council has set a date of 2030 for Oxford to be carbon neutral. The city will be home to the Energy Superhub, due to open this year, which comprises transmission-connected 50MW lithium ion and redox-flow hybrid battery systems as well as a network of 320 ground-source heat pumps. The energy generated from the facility will provide heat and power to 3,000 social housing units in the area.
Carbon neutral companies in the UK
It’s not just councils and local governments taking action in the UK. Some of the biggest companies are also making efforts to become more sustainable in their business practises. According to research by theecoexperts.co.uk, almost half of companies in the UK have plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. While there are too many to mention in this article, here is what some of the largest employers in the UK are doing:
- SKY: The company has actually been carbon neutral since 2006, a commendable achievement considering it employs more than 30,000 people and has 23 million subscribers. It did so via a number of methods, including reducing travel, waste, and water use. It has improved fuel efficiency within its transport fleet, and since 2016, has achieved 100% renewable electricity, thanks to on-site wind power.
- Marks & Spencer: The retail and supermarket giant has been carbon neutral since 2007 and aims to have cut 90% of its carbon footprint by 2035. The company has taken part in various initiatives including reforestation projects, investment in sustainable cotton in India, and worked with global organisations such as the World Economic Forum and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to tackle various environmental issues.
- Quorn: The vegan and plant-based food supplier is on a mission to change the way we eat and help overcome climate change. The company has an ambitious target of helping consumers reduce their meat consumption by 50% by 2050. They’ve also been doing their own part to address the environmental issues we face. Half of Quorn’s products have earned a carbon-neutral certification from the Carbon Trust. Around 80% of its packaging is recycled, and since 2012, Quorn has reduced emissions from its factories and production hubs by almost 40%.
How to become carbon neutral?
The best way to go carbon neutral is by investing in a carbon-offsetting project, such as reforestation, or plastic recycling initiatives. However, as individuals, there are many steps we can take to reduce our carbon footprint and help in the collective efforts to reduce global warming. These are just some of the things we can do in our daily lives:
- Choose to walk, cycle or use public transport instead of using your car;
- Share a car ride with others if you need to use your car;
- Avoid flying if possible as it is one of the world’s fastest-growing sources of CO2 emissions. Can you go by train instead, for example?
- Reduce the amount of meat you eat;
- Eat locally sourced and produced food;
- Recycle or compost organic waste.
- Programme your energy devices so that they’re on only while you're at home;
- Unplug your mobile phone charger and turn off other electronic devices. They still drain electricity even when they are not connected or left on standby mode;
- Switch off the lights when you don’t need them and use energy-saving lights such as LED.
- Use the washing machine and dishwasher only when they are full;
- Boil only the water you will need when cooking;
- Collect the cold water from the first seconds of your shower to water your garden or plants.
- Reduce what you need; reuse it as many times as you can, re-purpose if you’re not using it anymore and recycle it when it reaches the end of its life cycle;
- Reuse your shopping bags rather than asking for new ones;
- Choose products with little packaging, especially plastic.
Carbon neutral house: What is it?
The construction sector is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. But as homeowners are becoming more aware of the part they can play in environmental change, demand for zero-carbon homes is on the increase. These homes, also known as carbon-neutral homes, are ones that do not increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the course of a year, according to Zero Carbon House.
The building process involves sustainable materials, while these types of houses are powered by renewable energy such as wind or solar.
Some houses in the UK go even further than being carbon neutral and actually produce more electricity than needed, and connect it back to the National Grid or their power supplier, meaning CO2 emissions can be reduced elsewhere. These homes are known as carbon-negative homes.
Read all our guides on how to reduce your carbon footprint and help the environment.