What does it mean to be Climate Positive?

Tom Haddon

Tom Haddon

Oct 19, 2020

At Earthly, we want what’s best for the planet. And for us, this means going beyond carbon neutral, or carbon zero to a climate positive agenda in order to tackle climate change. This looks beyond striving to counter emissions created with carbon reductions, and instead looks to purposefully remove more carbon than we produce and create environmental benefits through our actions. 

Tree sprouting in water

Mahajunga © Eden Reforestation Projects

How Net Zero can Tackle Global Warming

Firstly, we should look at what it means to be carbon neutral or net zero, so we can see why it is imperative to go further than this. A recent publication from Oxford University outlined a set of principles “for net zero aligned carbon offsetting” [1]. Many countries, organisations and even individuals are setting out targets to reach net zero emissions. The UK has a target to reach net zero by 2050, reducing the net greenhouse gas emissions of the UK by 100% relative to 1990 levels [2]. As well as the UK, five other countries have formally passed laws to put in place net zero targets – Sweden and Scotland, 2045; and France, Denmark and New Zealand by 2050[2]. 

For these nations the goal is net zero (where emissions are reduced in tandem with offsetting and removal initiatives) rather than gross or absolute zero which would be where no GHG emissions were produced overall. This is because at the moment, given current technology and investment, it is not realistic to aim for gross zero emissions as a nation. The Oxford Principles make a similar point noting that: “while some actors can feasibly eliminate all of their emissions to reach “absolute zero”, some actors will have residual emissions. For example, emissions from biological processes in agriculture, some industrial processes, and fossil fuel combustion for aviation will likely be difficult to eliminate fully by 2050.” [1]. The target of ‘absolute zero’ goes one step further. Not only does it outline a gross zero of GHG emissions but it also adds a responsibility for any emissions that are a result of spending; including imported goods, international flights and shipping [3]. 

The Oxford Principles and Creating Change

The principles outlined by Oxford University for net zero carbon offsetting [1], can also help us see the need to become climate positive. The principles are a follows:

Principle 1: Cut emissions, use high-quality offsets, and regularly revise offsetting strategy as best practice evolves

Principle one outlines the need to cut emissions, both collectively and individually and as a first and foremost priority. As discussed by the Broekhoff et al. at the SEI, it is important that the target of reaching ‘net zero’ shouldn’t cloud the most critical goal of greenhouse gas reductions [4]. They noted that: 

“collectively, all CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels must cease altogether well before the end of the century: there will be little room for anyone to “net out” their emissions using someone else’s GHG reductions. Thus, although the idea of achieving zero net emissions is compelling and even necessary, the focus should be on reducing GHG emissions directly (and dramatically) in line with global mitigation goals. Arguably, organizations should only use carbon offsets on top of efforts to reduce their own emissions to near-zero by 2050.” [4]

Just like at Earthly, we want to encourage lifestyles that work to the betterment of the environment alongside carbon removal, to create a positive impact. Business-as-usual thinking, that uses offsetting as an excuse to continue as normal, must be eradicated. For the past 200 years humans have been living a climate-negative, earth-destroying lifestyle – for the future we need to be living a climate positive one.   

Principle 2: Emissions removal rather than reduction

Often offsets are generated when they create a reduction of GHGs. For example, supplying more efficient cooking stoves in developing countries can be seen as an offset, since the end result will be a reduction in GHGs or an avoidance of GHGs. However, as noted by the principles, emissions removal should be the focus in attempts to hit net zero and beyond. 

At Earthly, we focus on emissions removal, through projects that support carbon sequestration such as reforestation and blue carbon projects. These projects not only ensure that GHGs are removed and stored, but they also can act over a much longer period of time helping not only to reduce in the present, but acting as a carbon sink going forward. As noted in the principles “carbon removals have a critical advantage over emission reductions because they scrub emissions from the atmosphere. As a result, they will eventually play a hugely important role in stabilising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and potentially even reducing them after net zero is achieved” [1]. This also ties into Principle three. 

Young mangrove forest in water

Young mangrove forest © Eden Reforestation Projects

Principle 3: Shift to long-lived storage

This principle is to ensure that we develop methods of combating climate change that work not only in the present, looking good ‘on paper’, but over time. Additionally, this is a large aspect of the climate positive agenda, less a balancing of the books, and more a balancing of nature. Many of the natural solutions to carbon storage, such as the ones we use at Earthly, are capable of storing carbon for thousands of years, with the correct land use and the right protection [1]. 

Principle 4: Support the development of net zero aligned offsetting

Principle 4 is about ensuring that the other goals receive attention, investment and development. It also starts to look beyond a balancing or net-zero goal towards ideas closer to that of our climate positive agenda. 

The report notes that nature-based solutions (NbS) will be needed in the future, even as we near the target of net-zero carbon. This is because NbS can harness a range of benefits, and lead to healthier,  more biodiverse, and resilient natural systems [5]. Ecosystems not only act as GHG sinks but are essential to help people and economic sectors adjust to and manage the negative impacts of climate change, simultaneously addressing multiple sustainable development goals [5].

Climate Change to Climate positive 

We hear a lot about net-zero, and carbon neutrality but at Earthly, we prefer climate positive. Put simply, to be climate positive means you are removing more carbon than you are producing alongside reducing the amount of carbon you are producing. We want to encourage nature-based climate solutions that help ecosystems and communities alike. In our eyes, climate positive is a mindset, a lifestyle and something that gives back to our planet and makes a difference to climate change.

To learn about the resources and methods you can use, read more on the Earthly Blog, or take a look at our products to see what actionable changes you can make.


[1] Allen et al. (2020). The Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting. https://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/publications/reports/Oxford-Offsetting-Principles-2020.pdf

[2] The Institute for Government.(2020). UK net zero target. https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/net-zero-target

[3] Allwood et al. (2019). UK Fires – Absolute Zero. https://ukfires.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Absolute-Zero-online.pdf

[4] Broekhoff et al. (2019). Securing Climate Benefit: A Guide to Using Carbon Offsets. http://www.offsetguide.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/11.15.19.pdf

[5] Chausson. et al. (2020). Mapping the effectiveness of nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15310

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