17 June 2019
Authors : César Dugast

Stop saying "carbon offset" : For a corporate carbon neutrality committed to its territories

Stop saying "carbon offset" A Carbone 4 series discussing a new carbon neutrality Episode 1 : For a corporate carbon neutrality committed to its territories. By César Dugast and Renaud Bettin 

  On Monday, May 20th 2019, a French non-for-profit organization called Entreprises pour l'environnement (EpE) published the study “ZEN 2050 - Inventing and building a carbon neutral France” (in french). This prospective exercice, which Carbone 4 is proud to have taken part in, aims to explore the feasibility of a "net zero emission" objective by mid 21st century on a national scale. To do so, the study focus on both an analysis of the scale of the economy sectors, and a sociological approach of French changing lifestyles. In this EpE study, something interesting occurred : companies tried to define their role in a carbon neutrality objective at a national scale, without ever mentioning "their own" neutrality. But what is the link, and which one should exist, between the neutrality of a territory and the one of a company ?

Local neutrality, a concept covering every scope

Trying to build a ZEN France by 2050, such as the one stated in the EpE study, implies defining carbon neutrality as a local thing. It involves balancing anthropogenic emissions and removals of greenhouse gases in a limited geographical scope. This definition can easily cover any scope : first the earth (article 4 of the Paris Agreement (french), Special report Global Warming of 1.5°C, IPCC) ; a country (étude EpE, Low Carbon National Strategy (french)) but also regions, public inter-municipality cooperation establishments (a specific administrative organization in France) and cities. The approach remains the same : balancing emissions and removals of greenhouse gases taking place in a limited geographical area, excluding importations and without considering a single purchase of carbon credits on international markets.

Corporate neutrality : an abstract concept

The idea of carbon neutrality is very popular in the business world. Powerful, federative, seemingly straightforward, the "zero" objective is often claimed, aimed, displayed... with diverse ambition and transparency levels. Today, a "neutral" company roughly follows the same operating mode : to Mesure, Reduce and Offset. Those three steps, although they seem reasonable, lack a couple of things increasingly difficult to ignore. 

  • First, no company defines its neutrality on the same emissions perimeter. Some are "neutral" on their whole value chain, others on their office life emissions only... while every company claims the same ambition, as there is but one word, "neutral", to describe a variety of cases.
  • Then, the reduction rates expected are often self-declared, based on small and incremental improvements which neither question the business as usual perspective, nor are required to be compatible with a climate scenario limiting global warming to +2°C or +1,5°C . Besides, carbon neutrality is not a future commitment : to be and remain "neutral" does almost never require to respect its emissions reduction targets. In other words, companies claiming to be "carbon neutral" can have their emissions increasing over time !
  • Finally, the very term of "carbon offset" suffer from a degraded image. This mechanism, yet virtuous when put to good use, has been a way to shrug off its own responsibilities to reduce its emissions at an affordable cost and for too long. It can even be dangerous and block any action when used to "ease its guilt". And let's not forget that carbon offsets never had the status of a real emissions reduction in corporate carbon accounting.

Today, the concept of "corporate carbon neutrality" suffer a confusing and unfortunate conceptual blur, and miss a link with the neutrality targets of the company's territory or country. The latter is neither seek nor claimed. It would therefore be a pity to keep associating an unambitious but current definition to this powerful concept.

The need for a common langage

The need for action has never been greater. We need the action of all the stakeholders, and every financing mechanisms to unlock a transition and reach our targets on an international scale. So how can a company, willing to commit to a carbon neutrality approach with performance obligation at the regional scale, take part ? To answer this question, we need to create guidelines and tools about carbon neutrality. We should step out a navel-gazing vision of a carbon neutrality that would be individual. Let's accept that the real challenge is to reach collectively "net zero emission" at the global, national or local scale. Let's encourage the contributions that every stakeholder (company, citizen, public authorities) is able to make. It is time to reinvent the way we "claim" neutrality.  We believe a company willing to be serious about neutrality is serious, above all, about its contribution in reaching the carbon neutral target of its territory, be it a city, a country or even the whole planet. We believe the first step to link companies to their territories lies in defining new indicators, tools and concepts, for companies to monitor their neutrality. To that end, the Net Zero Initiative is designing guidelines, based on a triple bottom line emissions accounting. A common langage, shared amongst everyone, with a set of rules and the same indicators. It is a solidarity and contribution story : beyond neutrality, it is up to us to build a positive and desirable future !   


This is the first episode of Carbone 4 series to discuss the new carbon neutrality. 

Net Zero Initiative