‘No net loss’ is a buzz phrase in environmental policy. Applied to a multitude of environmental targets such as biodiversity, wetlands and land productive capacity, no net loss (NNL) and related goals have been adopted by multiple countries and organizations, but these goals often lack clear reference scenarios: no net loss compared to what? Here, we examine policies with NNL and related goals, and identify three main forms of reference scenario. We categorize NNL policies as relating either to overarching policy goals, or to responses to specific impacts. We explore how to resolve conflicts between overarching and impact-specific NNL policies, and improve transparency about what NNL-type policies are actually designed to achieve.