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Corporate CO2 explained using the Bath Analogy

Understanding sustainability terms has become increasingly vital as more companies are actively seeking sustainability progress and certifications.

In this article, we dive into the bath analogy and explore terms like carbon neutral, net-zero, carbon positive, and climate positive. We also uncover the importance of evaluating carbon claims and distinguishing genuine sustainability efforts from mere marketing claims.

So, let's jump in and explore the world of CO2 using the fascinating bath analogy!

Corporate carbon emission (COw)inventory analogy

The water flowing in from the tap is the CO2e entering the atmosphere from activities such as flying, using products and services, employee commute, etc.

Water in the bath represents the total CO2e associated with the business after a certain period of time. You can’t let the water all the way to the top or you’ll make a big mess (clients will go somewhere else that is more sustainable).

The water flowing out of the bath is the CO2 removed from the atmosphere because of the companies direct investment in carbon offsets. We will deep dive later into the efficiency of this mechanism but for now assume that more offsets equates to more water flowing out of the bath.

Now that we understand what makes up our bath analogy, let’s deep dive into the key concepts.

Carbon Neutral

An organisation can become carbon neutral if the water flowing in = water flowing out of the bath.

In other words, we are balancing the amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount removed from the atmosphere.

Companies can remove this emission by investing in projects that reduce greenhouse gases, such as reforestation or renewable energy. Also known as offsets.

In carbon neutrality, the water level in the bath doesn’t change.


The important difference to Carbon Neutral is that you ‘must’ have reduced the flow of water from the tap before letting water out (aka buying offsets).

Statements such as “Net-zero by 2050” imply that there will be reduction strategies alongside carbon offset strategies.

Now you can see how easily it is to get these two terms confused.

Carbon Positive, Carbon Negative, and Climate Positive

Some companies are exploring new terms and concepts to express what it means to go beyond neutrality.

The most common terms to define this behaviour include ‘carbon positive’, ‘carbon negative’ and ‘climate positive’.

In these cases, the water goes out faster than it comes in. This might happen because an organisation has ‘over-offsetting’ - bought more carbon credits that they needed.

This is a source of potential confusion. ‘Carbon positive’ can be read as numerically positive emissions (bad for the climate); and, ‘carbon negative’ is limited because it defines a good action in the negative.

To simplify, we refer to all concepts that seek to convey net gain with the generic term ‘climate positive’.

However, because these terms tend not to be clearly defined, using them without strict due diligence by put your companies claims at risk of greenwashing

Instead, it is better to report your ongoing reduction efforts and any positive progress one year to the other. If you, for example, go above and beyond by investing in a green initiates, renewables energies, or supply chain change, communicate to your stakeholders about that specific action than labelling your whole company as climate positive.

Guest contributor | Annelieke de Wit, PhD, StartMate Climatech Fellow.
As I'm getting more involved in the climate and climatetech ecosystem, it's sometimes hard to read between the lines and distinguish between "carbon neutral/positive", "regenerative" and similar terms. A lot of it seems to be marketing terminology that is often misused. I would like to better understand what these terms mean, what is true and how to read between the lines.

Evaluating carbon claims

While part of you role might be to stir your company or team towards achieving sustainability milestone, you might also end up having to assess other organisation and products that you buy from to run your business.

Part of transforming our economy to a greener one is to have procurement and purchasing guidelines that favour those who have invested in making their operations and products more sustainable.

When evaluating sustainability claims, particularly related to carbon and environmental impact, it's essential to look beyond marketing and consider the following:

  1. Company or product claim: having a carbon neutral product is not the same as having a carbon neutral company.

Company certification tend to relate towards carbon neutrality whilst product claims are geared around the materials. For example, recyclable plastic, low carbon, or compostable claims.

  1. Transparency: Companies should provide detailed information about their sustainability initiatives, including specific actions taken, goals, and progress made. Look for credible certifications or third-party audits to verify claims.

Companies that do not provide access to the underlaying information for their claims may be called out for greenwashing.

  1. Collaboration and Accountability: Genuine commitment to sustainability involves collaborating with stakeholders, setting measurable targets, and regularly reporting progress. Companies should be transparent about their challenges and continuously strive for improvement.

In summary, understanding the nuances between terms like carbon neutral, carbon positive, and regenerative helps discern the level of environmental impact and commitment. Evaluating transparency, life cycle assessment, collaboration, and accountability aids in distinguishing genuine sustainability efforts from misleading marketing claims.

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