Are ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘100% renewable’ the same?

It is not always clear what the targets carbon neutrality and 100% renewable energy mean. In this blog, we will define these targets and talk about the difference between your energy and carbon footprint. In one of our next blog posts, we will look at allowable offset mechanisms like RECs/LGCs and carbon offsets.

The difference between your energy and carbon footprint

Your energy footprint relates to your business’ energy consumption. For most organisations, ‘energy’ encompasses not only electricity but also stationary energy and transport fuels. Examples of stationary fuels are natural gas, diesel for generators, and LPG for forklifts. Examples of transport fuels include diesel, petrol, and LPG that power your fleet.

A carbon footprint is the sum of your emission sources, a big part of which is your energy consumption. You can develop a narrow carbon footprint of emissions that happen at your place of business (Scope 1) and the emissions associated with electricity consumption (Scope 2). Alternatively, you can develop a wide carbon footprint which also includes emissions in your supply chain (Scope 3).

A carbon footprint is usually broader than your energy footprint. You can see in Figure 1 that an energy footprint is a subset of a carbon footprint. From a carbon accounting perspective, your energy footprint relates to your Scope 2 emissions and to some of your Scope 1 emissions.

The difference between your energy footprint and carbon footprint and claims for 100% renewable energy and carbon neutrality
Figure 1: The difference between your energy footprint and carbon footprint and claims for 100% renewable energy and carbon neutrality

What is carbon neutrality?

Carbon neutrality (or zero net emissions) is reached when all emission sources in your defined boundary are zero. This is demonstrated in Figure 1 in the bottom line. Ideally, your defined carbon footprint boundary encompasses as many emission sources as possible so that your claim for carbon neutrality is credible.

You can reach carbon neutrality by:

  1. Reducing your emissions onsite through energy efficiency or by installing solar PV
  2. Building or purchasing renewables offsite, and by
  3. Offsetting the rest of your emissions through the purchase of carbon offsets

For further information on these three categories, you can read our blogs on the carbon management hierarchy, compare the value of onsite and offsite solar, and installing solar via onsite PPAs.

What is 100% renewable energy?

You are 100% renewable when the amount of renewable energy produced is equal to or more than what is consumed. In most cases, people associate only electricity with ‘100% renewable’. However, as you can see in Figure 1 ‘energy’ can encompass stationary and transport fuels as well. So, to be truly 100% renewable, you would have to include these fuels. While it is relatively straightforward to reach 100% renewable electricity, it is more difficult to achieve 100% renewable energy for stationary and transport fuels.

To avoid doubt if your real objective is to green your electricity supply, you can define your target to be ‘100% renewable electricity’. You can reach this goal by:

  1. Implementing onsite solar PV
  2. Building your own mid-scale solar farm or solar/wind farm in partnership with others
  3. Buying renewables (e.g., through a corporate Power Purchase Agreement)

For further information, you can read our Guide on ‘How to achieve 100% renewable energy’ or buy Barbara’s book ‘Energy Unlimited – Four Steps to 100% Renewable Energy’. Signed copies can be purchased here, and the ebook version is available from reputable bookstores.

Conclusion

Carbon neutrality and 100% renewable energy are two different targets. It is easier to reach ‘carbon neutrality’ than to reach ‘100% renewable energy’, especially if the boundary for energy encompasses both electricity, natural gas and transport fuels. However, to be a leader in climate change, your organisation should also strive towards a renewable energy target as your impact will be much greater.

It is possible to reach 100% renewable energy AND carbon neutrality. Microsoft has been achieving both since 2014. You can also pursue both targets in a staged approach. As an example, you could aim for 100% renewable electricity in the first instance, followed by carbon neutrality in the medium term, followed by 100% renewable energy in the long run.

If you have specific questions about defining a target that works for your organisation, or if you would like us to develop a pathway to your sustainability goal, please have a chat with Barbara or Patrick.

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