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carbon neutral also carbon-neutral, carbonneutral

adjective

adopting measures to prevent polluting the atmosphere with carbon emissions

carbon neutrality

noun [uncountable]

'HSBC is the first big bank to commit to going carbon neutral as it seeks to reduce its environmental impact. Starting in 2005, it will plant trees, reduce energy use, buy green electricity and trade carbon credits to cut carbon dioxide flows.'

BBC News 6th December 2004

'Mr Key told a Queenstown audience that he takes the risks posed by climate change seriously. But, to achieve carbon neutrality, he says New Zealand would have to shut all its factories, turn off all the lights, and put all its vehicles on the scrapheap.'

Radio New Zealand 29th November 2006

Towards the end of 2006, the New Oxford American Dictionary voted the expression carbon neutral as its 'Word of the Year'. The decision was motivated by the fact that concern for the long-term welfare of our environment is becoming an increasingly high-profile topic across the generations, from classrooms to political summits. The term carbon-neutral embodies the spirit of what is now regarded as a key aspect of 21st-century life: how to counteract and minimize the impact of atmospheric pollution. A reminder of the universal importance of this issue was published on 2nd February 2007 in a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that declared a 90% probability that global warming is being caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and not by natural cyclical variations, as some sceptics claim.

an important aspect to achieving carbon neutrality is in 'neutralizing' the effects of previous pollution, such as the planting of trees and plants which absorb carbon-dioxide

Being carbon neutral means working out your total climate-damaging carbon emissions and taking steps to reduce them, as well as adopting measures which counteract the effects of previous pollution. This usually involves investment in renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power. In addition, an important aspect to achieving carbon neutrality is in 'neutralizing' the effects of previous pollution, such as the planting of trees and plants which absorb carbon-dioxide. These measures are often referred to as carbon offsets.

An individual measure of the impact a person or organization's activities has on the environment (e.g. the appliances they use, the vehicles they drive, etc.) can be described as their carbon footprint. If you're feeling guilty the next time you start up your car or put the kettle on, you can work out your own carbon footprint by checking out websites such as www.carbonfootprint.com, which provides a carbon footprint calculator.

Background – carbon neutral

The expression carbon neutral first appeared in the early nineties. Early use of the term referred to plants, which can be described as carbon neutral if the amount of carbon dioxide they absorb whilst alive is equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide they give out when burned as a fuel.

A related term is the verb decarbonize (also spelt decarbonise and with a derived noun decarbonization/decarbonisation). Although this verb has existed since the early twentieth century, when it simply meant 'to remove carbon deposits from an engine', in the late nineties it took on a very specific sense relating to dealing with environmental pollution from carbon emissions, for example:

'The scientists say that by 2050, even if you decarbonised the entire rest of the economy, Britain would miss its conservative target of a 60 per cent cut in emissions just because of the contribution made by flying alone.'

The Observer 5th November 2006

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 2nd February 2007.

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