Author: Sam Duncan

Climate Positive vs Carbon Negative: What’s the difference?

By Sam Duncan, FarmLab Founder and CEO

As we drive back down the hill to the house from our little holiday at the coast, I spot the now-familiar blue plastic tarps flapping in the wind on buildings in the distance. “They’ve finally started repairing the daycare,” my wife explains as we look on at the white stucco buildings at the university in the distance. At least that means our youngest won’t have to go through an Armidale winter in the drafty hall they transformed into a daycare at the back of the campus. It’s been 6 months since the tornado hit our small regional town of Armidale in Northern New South Wales and, despite being declared a national disaster by the government, the red tape of building insurers and policy agents means that reparations are slow to be realised.

This situation is common across regional towns in Australia, from the 2020 bushfires devastating the town of Mallacoota in Victoria’s east to the recent floods Lismore in New South Wales North coast, where extreme weather events are becoming more common and the victims are more often than not those who live closest to nature. Unfortunately, those victims are also a major contributor to the supply chains through which we source our food and fibre. As we start to use climate focussed terminology in marketing, it’s important to remember that we’re doing to this not for the sake of the consumer, but for the very people on whom our food and fibre industries rely: agriculture.

“Our real aim is to become ‘carbon positive’ – meaning we take more carbon out of the atmosphere than we put in, even as our company grows.” This statement came from one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers, Patagonia. For those familiar with their story, you’ll know that Patagonia have been fighting for environmental causes since their inception by keen rock-climber and old-school environmentalist, Yvon Chouinard. This type of statement is becoming more commonly adopted by brands wanting to emphasise the work they’re doing to reduce emissions. But what does the term ‘carbon positive’ really mean, and how does it differ to Carbon Negative, and Carbon Neutral?

The formula we use to determine whether something is taking carbon out of the atmosphere to generate a ‘carbon offset’ is simple:

Carbon Sequestered – Carbon Emitted = Net Carbon Offsets

If I put some numbers into this equation to discover I am sequestering more carbon than I’m emitting, I will have a positive result.

This equation works well with the term ‘Carbon Positive’, but herein lies the issue: most companies won’t have any carbon sequestered. These companies will end up with a ‘negative’ result. If we are calculating our carbon emissions, the term ‘carbon positive’ might mean we’re emitting more carbon than we’re sequestering.

Who’s kicking whom?’

I decided to seek advice from an expert, so I asked my wife: esteemed Lecturer in Writing at the University of New England and all-around brilliant woman (I hope she reads this), Dr Lili Pâquet. When I asked what made more sense grammatically, ‘Carbon Negative’ or ‘Carbon Positive’, she asked, “who’s kicking whom?” I told her no-one was kicking anyone, we’re talking about climate change. She went on to explain one of the fundamental sentence structure rules she teaches first year students. In any simple sentence you need a subject, verb and object. In the case of ‘carbon negative/positive’ there is no verb. This absence results in some confusion around what we’re referring to. Do we mean ‘carbon sequestration’ or do we mean ‘carbon emissions’? It depends on who you ask.

Now take the term ‘Climate Positive’. It’s still missing a verb, but the meaning is less ambiguous. Climate + Positive = Good for the climate. The beauty of this statement is that it’s futureproof. CO2 and carbon are some of the most important environmental measurements today, but 30 years ago we were talking about CFCs in relation to the hole in the atmosphere. Over the next decade I wager we’ll start incorporating more than just carbon into our discussions about the environment, like biodiversity and ecology. An overarching term like ‘climate’ is a much more effective at capturing the overall good we want to do for the climate and the environment.

Cooperation through a common terminology

Brands today are becoming more transparent about the impact their supply chains have on the environment and society. Definitions can help us cooperate better. When it comes to being able to compare company A to company B’s effectiveness, having a standard terminology to compare the two companies can help consumers decide which brand to support. It can help suppliers across the supply chain to understand one another’s business. In our research, much of the government terminology has shifted to ‘Climate Positive’. The Australian government’s ‘Climate Active’ brand gives businesses a logo to use that represents ‘positive climate action.’ The United Nations Secretary General has proposed 6 ‘climate-positive actions’ for governments to take in rebuilding their economies following the global pandemic.

Of course, when it comes to action, it doesn’t really matter what terminology is being used. Extreme weather events like floods, fires and tornadoes are going to continue to impact our communities, and food and fibre industries will be the ones that feel the greatest effect. Fortunately, the food and fibre industries have some of the most transparent supply chains and best consumer messaging and awareness. If we get the terminology right here, we get consumers thinking about whether their cars, energy sources and furniture are ‘climate positive’ too.

Useful Definitions

Climate positive: means that a company or organisation’s activity goes beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Carbon Positive: one way organisations choose to describe climate positive and carbon negative.

Carbon Negative: means the same thing as ‘climate positive’.

Climate Neutral: refers to reducing all GHG to the point of zero while eliminating all other negative environmental impacts that an organisation may cause.

Net-Zero Emissions: when total amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) released and the amount removed from the atmosphere reaches an equilibrium. 


Sam Duncan is CEO and Founder of FarmLab, agricultural software which enables agronomists, consultants and farmers better map, sample and analyse soil using the latest in soil science and digital soil mapping techniques. For more about FarmLab, visit www.farmlab.com.au.

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