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In order to understand carbon and what we mean when using different terminology, it’s important to understand what carbon is. 

What we're going to cover:

A little background – As you know, our planet is protected by a mixture of natural gases known as our atmosphere, which consists primarily of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, argon, trace amounts of other gases and water vapor.

These gases work in harmony to protect us and our environment in several ways. One is keeping the planet at the right temperature so life can thrive and another is by absorbing harmful ultra violet rays from the sun.

The problem occurs when humans come along and upset the balance with activities. From the beginning of the industrial revolution we started creating more and more CO2 by burning oil, coal, driving cars etc causing an imbalance that our natural environment can’t offset sustainably.

Why is more CO2 an issue? Well, we are no experts in this subject by any means but it’s our understanding that CO2 absorbs and emits thermal energy from the sun and earth’s surface, so because of the increased amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, this heat that’s been absorbed is not escaping as it would have before. We are essentially making a nice cosy blanket of CO2 to warm the planet beyond it’s normal level! (It also destroys the Ozone layer but that’s for another day)

As our understanding has developed over the years, it’s become extremely important to reduce our emissions in order to save our future planet.

A particularly hot topic in the construction industry because it accounts for 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions.

So… This is why it’s important to understand what people really mean when they say they are carbon neutral, carbon conscious or whatever the new phrase is for them at the time.

To help, we have developed a list of common terms in the hope that it demystifies what it all means.

What are Carbon Emissions?
Carbon is a by-product emitted from the production and consumption of fossil fuels, food, manufactured goods, materials, roads or transportation.

What is a Carbon Footprint?
A Carbon Footprint is the measure of carbon emissions that you, your organisation or product release into the atmosphere in it’s lifetime or set period of time. This is generally measured in carbon tons.

A typical hardwood tree can absorb approx. 1 ton of CO2 in 40 years. 
A typical human can put out about 40 billion tons each year!

Theoretically then, we would need about 40 billion trees per person every year for 40 years. We have approximately 400 trees per person! That’s not going to work…

What does Operational Carbon mean?
This is a term used for a buildings’ carbon footprint whilst in operation, such as heating, cooling, lighting etc.

What does Embodied Carbon mean?
This is the carbon footprint of a material throughout the supply chain. For example, a calculation is made to know much carbon has been released from the start of the process of making the steel to it landing on our factory floor. ‘Cradle to gate’

What does Carbon Conscious mean?
This is us… and it means we care about our activities and the affect they are having on our planet so we are actively taking steps to reduce our carbon footprints but haven’t quite got there. Carbon conscious companies or bodies of people often set goals to reach by a certain time and work towards it.

What's the difference between Carbon Neutral and Net zero?
None is the short answer. These terms mean that the individual, organisation or product produces carbon but offsets it in another way. Think of it as 'breaking even. For example a home might be powered by electricity and then you may buy carbon credits or be part of a tree planting project to offset the emissions.

These terms are interchangeable but generally you would use Carbon neutral as a statement for a product or service (our homes are carbon neutral) and Net Zero as a goal or target to reach (we aim to achieve Net Zero by 2030) for example.

What does Zero Carbon mean?
This means that the product or service produces no carbon from the get go, so for an example, a house powered purely by renewable energy doesn’t produce any carbon therefore it’s zero carbon or carbon zero.

What does Absolute Zero Carbon mean?
We think people just say this to look better than anyone saying zero carbon. It’s either zero or negative… That’s our take anyway 🤷‍♂‍🤷‍♀‍

What does Negative Carbon emissions mean?
The unicorn of carbon… In order to be Negative in carbon you must be doing more than just breaking even. For example a house could rely on renewable energy and be zero carbon, but then it could have a wind farm in the back yard and give back to the energy companies. In essence producing more energy than it uses without releasing any carbon emissions.

So in conclusion, Carbon is a complex subject with many people using different terms for potentially the same thing. If you found this useful, have a free downloadable version on us. Pin it up on your noticeboard, shove it in a drawer for another day or simply share it with a friend who could benefit.


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