The CarbonNeutral Protocol Index

3.5 Climate (or carbon, or net) positive

A growing number of corporates are exploring terms and concepts that address the perceived limitations of neutrality, which can imply no net gain for the climate. The most common terms in this space include ‘carbon positive’, ‘carbon negative’ and ‘climate positive’. ‘Carbon positive’ and ‘carbon negative’ are used to indicate a net removal or reduction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is a source of potential confusion. ‘Carbon positive’ can be read as numerically positive emissions (bad for the climate); and, ‘carbon negative’ is limited because it defines a good action in the negative. To limit confusion, we refer to all concepts that seek to convey net gain with the generic term ‘climate positive’.

In 2021, we conducted our third annual study into the climate commitments of the Fortune Global 500, finding that carbon neutrality targets outnumbered climate positive targets 31:1 (Natural Capital Partners, 2021, Reality Check, link).

Many climate positive actions and targets lack the structural integrity of other actions such as CarbonNeutral® certification. Some have complex or ill-defined goals. Of the organisations in the Fortune Global 500 with climate positive actions/targets, 40% did not provide a clearly defined or transparent climate positive goal.

Our working definition of ‘climate positive’ is ‘a term indicating that an entity is taking or causing action beyond carbon neutrality by removing GHGs from the atmosphere or reducing emissions to the atmosphere such that the aggregated reductions and removals exceed the unabated emissions from the subject’.

The certification type we use for CarbonNeutral® certifications (Entity, Product, Activity) is also helpful here because some ‘climate positive’ targets apply to individual products not the whole business.

Natural Capital Partners’ research currently defines three main ‘climate positive’ archetypes for entities, products and activities to go beyond neutral greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

These are as follows:

  1. ‘Over-offsetting’ the subject’s footprint by a given percentage
  2. Deploying technology or solutions within the value chain that reduce GHG emissions e.g. producing and distributing more renewable energy than is consumed by the providing entity
  3. Deploying technology or solutions within the value chain to sequester GHG emissions

Some businesses choose to focus on only one of the above archetypal methods, while others pick a range of actions to become positive. There is also variability as to how much the actions to become positive are integrated into the organisation’s wider sustainability plan.

The concept of net gain is attracting interest and with wider use is becoming better defined and understood. However, there is no working definition as yet that meets all the Principles that underpin the CarbonNeutral Protocol (see Introduction), especially the second principle of claims built on conservative estimation, best practice, transparency and continuous improvement. For that reason, caution is advised in making public claims around climate positive.