What is net zero, vs sustainability vs low carbon

Tools & Resources

Key learnings

  • Sustainability is the ability to maintain a business or process continually over time. 
  • Net zero means achieving a balance between human-related carbon dioxide (CO2) or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and their removal from the atmosphere.
  • Low carbon means adopting processes that produce less carbon than traditional ones. 

With climate change at the forefront of many discussions, you might be wondering what the difference is between key terms such as net zero, sustainability and low carbon. In this article, we help you get your head around these three elements and explain what you need to know about each so that your business can start taking action to protect people and the planet.

While there are lots of similarities between a net zero business, a low carbon business and a sustainable business, there are key differences which are important to understand if you want to make a change.


Click below to find out what it means to achieve net zero vs sustainability vs low carbon in business.  



What is net zero?

Net zero is achieved when we reach a balance between emissions and removals that are the result of human activity. This can apply to an individual, a business, an industry or an entire country.  

You should specify whether you are working towards net zero carbon dioxide (CO2), or net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – a broader group of greenhouse gases that includes CO2.

Like many other developed nations, the UK has set the target of achieving net zero by 2050, which means that businesses of all shapes and sizes must aim to decarbonise within that timeframe.  

Getting to net zero will look different for every business, but the key thing is to start now by making a plan - and sticking to it!

Carbon reduction should form the basis of your net zero plan, but you can also do things in the short-term to help, such as carbon offsetting. Though keep in mind we can’t offset our way out of the climate crisis.


What is sustainability?

Sustainability is a broadly defined term that means different things to different people.  


Simply put, sustainability is the ability to maintain a business or process continually over time, operating in harmony with the environment, economy and society.  


In the context of business, sustainability means running your company in accordance with what is referred to as a ‘triple-bottom line’, which includes people, planet, and profit.  


A sustainable business is one that is profitable and generating revenues which will maintain operations over the long-term, but also one that looks after its employees and the environment.  


Profit is fundamental to business, but without people and a planet there won’t be much of it.


Any business hoping to become sustainable should therefore have a plan to achieve net zero, but this should be happening alongside a strong business plan and commitment to employee wellbeing, engagement and development.  


The B Corp movement is considered the gold standard for sustainability in business, and you can find out how to become a certified B Corporation here.


What is low carbon?

Low carbon means just that - processes that contribute less carbon than traditional ones but aren’t carbon neutral (producing no carbon at all).  


This is different to the idea of net zero because it isn’t concerned with achieving a balance alongside removals, but instead just focuses on reducing the amount of CO2 emissions.


Low carbon isn’t a long-term solution. In fact, becoming a low carbon business should be seen as a step towards net zero.


Carbon reduction is only one piece of the puzzle, though an important one. Companies are likely to achieve this first as it’s easier to do in the interim through things such as carbon offsetting, before achieving the wider goal of carbon neutrality.


Getting started

Now you’ve mastered the lingo and are looking to take your first steps in committing to net zero and becoming a sustainable business – but where do you start?


Well, the good news is you already have!


Step one comes from becoming ‘carbon literate’ and developing your understanding, so learning the terms is a great foundation for your journey. You can learn more terms on the topic here.


After this, you need to reflect on your current business model and processes to figure out the changes you need to make. From assessing where you are currently, you can then plot a course to where you need to be, how you’re going to get there and how long it might take.


A good place to start is the NatWest Carbon Planner, which will help you calculate your business’s current carbon footprint and plan a route forward to reduce it.


Remember to set targets to track progress and hold the business and everyone in it accountable.

Next steps...