Team of men and women sat around a table in an office discussing net zero terms

Talking Net Zero: Why does the accuracy of words matter to your business?

Knowing the specifics and differences between climate change and net-zero terms can have a long-term positive impact for your organisation. If you use the wrong term, or don’t completely understand what another term means, it could spell disaster for your business’ reputation, legal standing and finances.

We understand that climate change terms can be confusing, which is why we have created a glossary of climate terms for businesses. There are some major examples where inaccuracy of climate terms, or taking terms out of context, has had a negative impact on businesses. It goes through some of the terms you might see most often like greenwashing, sustainability and net zero, and explains what they mean and how they might be used.

What can go wrong when using climate change and net-zero terms?

There are some major examples where inaccuracy of climate terms, or taking terms out of context, has had a negative impact on businesses.

A Shell radio advert from 2020 advertised a loyalty programme, Shell GO+, which claimed it allowed members to drive carbon neutral. Shell’s justification for this was that they would offset the emissions of Shell drivers. However, there are a lot of questions around offsetting and if it actually affects emissions in a meaningful way at all – putting Shell’s ‘carbon neutral’ claims up for debate. Following complaints, the UK’s advertising watchdog shut down the advert.

This is a good example of where ‘carbon neutral’, a term which sounds very positive and good for the climate, is somewhat unreliable and inaccurate. It also shows that making claims you can’t 100% back-up can damage your reputation amongst your customer base.

Why does it matter? Misusing terms – either accidentally or intentionally – can cause consumers to lose faith in a company, which will affect a business’ bottom line. This is particularly important as the ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ market grows.

Secondly, greenwashing or painting an inaccurate picture of your business’ impact on the planet by using inaccurate terms can contribute further to negative environmental impacts.

And finally, there are legal and financial penalties for misusing terms.

How can knowing climate change terms help your business?

Discussions around net zero and sustainable business practices are becoming more and more common. As such, the sustainability support that’s available for businesses is also increasing. Whilst it’s great to have so many resources available, it also means navigating the net zero support landscape can be even more daunting. When you drill down from general sustainability support into specific topics, not knowing what exactly you’re looking for or not understanding certain phrases could leave you confused or worse, lead you to wasting your time pursuing the wrong type of sustainability support.

When you know what specific climate change terms mean – or have a resource such as our Glossary of Climate Change Terms to refer to – then you can navigate the sustainability support world with confidence and make sure you’re investing in the right resources for you.

Having a knowledge of climate change terms can help you:

  • Write detailed and successful funding applications for net zero-specific support (and find the right net zero funds for you!).
  • Drill down into your business and understand the exact areas where you could improve.
  • Find specific, relevant net zero support and resources that can help your business the most.
  • Have more in-depth conversations about becoming net zero with specialist advisors.
  • Understand and talk to other businesses who have made sustainable changes to their operations, so you can follow their examples.

What are some key net-zero terms you need to know right now?

It’s important to know as many climate change terms as you can in order to fully engage with net zero discussions. However, there are a few terms that are especially relevant to businesses right now:

  • Circular Economy

The circular economy is a way of working that promotes smart use and reuse of the resources we already have within our economy. A circular economy approach finds ways to reuse what we make or ‘no longer need’ and design it in a better way so that we make the most of our resources, minimising the need to make new resources.

If you would like to find out more about the Circular Economy, visit the Circular Yorkshire page.

  • Decarbonisation

Decarbonisation is the way that countries, organisations, regions or individuals aim to get to net zero emissions,. This usually includes reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of transport, electricity, heating etc. Decarbonisation can be achieved by using energy-efficient appliances, walking or cycling to work, and using solar energy, for example.

  • Greenwashing

Greenwashing refers to appearing more environmentally friendly without actually reducing impacts on the environment, or making false or exaggerated claims about your environmental impact. This may include vague claims about sustainability on websites, using green buzzwords without explanations, or using nature-inspired imagery on packaging without evidence to back up your sustainability claims.

  • Net Zero

Net Zero refers to greenhouse gas emissions and greenhouse gas removals becoming balanced over a period of time. It focuses on all greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane, etc. York & North Yorkshire’s Routemap to Carbon Negative is an example of what net zero can mean in practice.

  • Carbon Negative

Carbon negative means that instead of carbon emissions and carbon removals being balanced, there is more carbon being removed from the atmosphere than there is being emitted. The Routemap to Carbon Negative above is also an example of what this means in practice!

  • Offsetting

Offsetting (also known more specifically as carbon offsetting), is removing greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. This can be done with natural methods such as planting trees or restoring peatlands, or with carbon capture technology.

Offsetting has been called into question over the past few years for several reasons. Most recently it has been due to reports that a lot of ‘carbon credits’ (a form of offsetting where companies can buy the credits for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere by, for example, planting trees), are not really pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere. This method often means it takes decades before any CO2 is actually offset. Therefore, offsetting should be more of a last resort for residual emissions, rather than using it instead of reducing emissions in the first place.

More on offsetting can be found here.

  • Sustainability

Sustainability has been defined by the UN Brundtland Commission as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. However, there is not a universally agreed upon definition of sustainability. Words like sustainable, ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are often used in advertising because of this, which can border on greenwashing. Overall, the term sustainability can be useful, but it is less specific and less credible than some other terms.

What support is available to help you become net zero?

There’s a lot of information out there about climate change terms and many discussions about net zero going on. To make these more accessible to you, we’ve designed a Glossary of Climate Change Terms for Businesses, which puts simple, key definitions in one place for you. Download the free glossary here.

If you’re looking for further sustainability resources, you can find our Net-Zero Business Toolkit, Circular Economy guides and more on our Sustainability for Businesses webpage.

For further net zero business support, you can contact our Growth Hub helpdesk online, via email or by calling 0800 246 5045.