"Carbon-Negative" and "Carbon-Positive": Standardizing their definitions

With Architecture 2030’s CarbonPositive approaching, my colleagues and I have been reflecting on our use of the terms “carbon-negative” and “carbon-positive”.

It seems as though the international building community has come to share Architecture 2030’s definition of “carbon-positive” as, “A city, development, building, or product that goes beyond carbon neutral to create an environmental benefit and intentionally remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, turning it into useful forms.” This word association is good branding, but feels contradictory to how we calculate carbon values.

In my experience, builders in the US tend to define “carbon-positive” as having a positive carbon value, which is climate-negative. Using “carbon-negative” to describe a process in which more carbon is captured than emitted feels more accurate, but doesn’t tell a good PR story.

I’m curious as to what this community thinks should be the standard way of describing these concepts. Can we use contradictory definitions in different contexts? Or must the language of our outreach match the terms used in the scientific literature.

What term do you use to describe a product or project that captures more carbon than it emits?

  • Carbon-Negative
  • Carbon-Positive

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When I am discussing carbon decisions in our office, I use carbon neutral or carbon storing. Whenever I use negative or positive, the conversation becomes confusing, especially since the staff at our firm are still new to EC. That said, I understand the PR argument.



Great conversation. I wish the industry would align on the technically correct of “carbon negative” and/or “climate positive” if they can’t get past “negative”. When we (Interface) developed our prototype carbon negative carpet tile, we called it “Proof Positive” because our marketers just couldn’t wrap their head’s around calling something negative, but that was in 2017. Next month, we’re launching carbon negative backings and even some full carpet tiles that are carbon negative, and we’re using the technically correct terminology. The conversation is gaining traction, and as people learn, it’s even MORE confusing.


This segues with existing terminology elsewhere: “net-zero”. The industry is sufficiently used to describing carbon (or energy) as a positive number to be reduced that it follows naturally to a description of those numbers as negative when a project can go that far.

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(I could be wrong but …) the UK and EU now seem to be using the terms ‘carbon negative’ and ‘climate positive’ in the same sentence.

Since we are trying to reduce carbon it seems to me that ‘carbon negative’ is a good thing, and this is how Salvo has described it related to reuse of reclaimed building materials and products for several years.

The earliest use I can find of the term ‘carbon negative’ relating to climate change dates from 2000 in the Irish Independent by forestry journalist Joe Barry.

Standardizing our language is important. If we do not have clear definitions of industry specific terms we use, then we need to at least use terms that people can understand in context. As it is, the terminology used is often confusing and can be a barrier preventing people who would otherwise be aligned from taking action. When in doubt, explain what you mean. Embodied carbon - meaning the amount of carbon released (or a GHG/C02e calculation) in creating the material and measured from cradle to gate/site/grave.