While global representatives are busy at COP26, it’s important to pay attention to the topic of net zero targets. Carbon offsetting is a concept often described as a solution for reaching net zero, but what does this actually mean? In this post, I explore what exactly carbon offsetting entails, and determine whether it is a valuable tool for climate mitigation, or if carbon offsetting is greenwashing.
What is Carbon Offsetting?
Carbon Offsetting is a way for individuals and companies to “pay off” their own emissions by contributing to a scheme which removes carbon from the atmosphere. A scheme commonly used is tree planting. There are several criteria for carbon offset schemes:
- The offset project needs to be an additional activity to what was already going to happen.
- The project must permanently lock away emissions. This is one of the difficulties with tree planting schemes, and their uncertain longevity due to forest fires, disease, and deforestation.
- Moreover, the project must not result in emissions shifting elsewhere. In other words, it doesn’t count if a company promises not to deforest one region and then go cut down trees in another country.
What is Net Zero?
Net zero is a trendy term at the moment. At COP26, countries are pledging to achieve net zero by certain dates, India for example aiming for 2070! But what is net zero? Absolute zero emissions would be when the globe/country/company produce no emissions. Net zero means emissions and drawdown (sequestering carbon) balancing each other out to zero. The problem with net zero is that we run the risk of focusing on offsetting to continue business as usual. The prospect of buying our way to a net zero target delays mitigation action. Carbon neutral is another term frequently used to explain this concept, but it doesn’t necessarily include reducing emissions, only offsetting.
What are the positives to carbon offsetting?
On the face of it, financial backing for environmental regeneration and conservation projects is a positive, if the projects are ethical and sustainable. When done correctly, these schemes can help preserve wetlands, plant sea grass, and restore mangrove forests. They can offer employment and engagement at a community level, and can help restore biodiversity. One could argue that individuals, corporations, and countries participating in carbon offset schemes are at least taking some sort of action and accountability for their carbon footprints.
What are the downfalls of carbon offsetting?
The future of carbon offsetting is currently uncertain. As this article in the Sustainable Review explains, it may soon be cheaper for companies to remove emissions than to rely on offsets. If every company relied on offsets, there won’t be enough to go around and the price will jump. Therefore, the sustainability of this scheme as a whole is questionable.
Carbon offsetting is often used by industries who emit the most, such as the airlines and fossil fuel companies. Shell’s new “Go+” loyalty card system has recently come under scrutiny by claiming that its customers can “drive carbon neutral”. Cardholders earn rewards by buying petrol and opting to have their emissions offset through purchasing carbon credits. This claim of using more fossil fuels to be carbon neutral is pure greenwashing. These so-called carbon neutral flights and driving schemes are funding forest protection schemes. As Greenpeace’s article below points out, these protection schemes are sometimes in National Forests already protected, or are otherwise not quantifiable.
Moreover, carbon offsets are not mitigation. They do not modify current behaviour of producing emissions at an increasing rate. Instead of cutting your own carbon emissions, you pay someone else to cut theirs or somehow capture yours. Offsets cannot fix the climate crisis.
Who is buying carbon offsets?
A huge challenge in the sustainability of carbon offsetting projects relates to the carbon offsetting market itself. One main regulation issue is who is held accountable for ensuring that the local community holds agency. Projects are often set up by external (international) organizations, and are influenced by stakeholders such as investors or financial middle-men. Therefore, the ethical integrity of projects is questioned when indigenous communities are at risk of losing agency, missing out on economic benefits, and at worse their land rights are threatened.
There are two types of offsetting schemes, voluntary, and compliance schemes developed under the Kyoto Protocol (which are verified by the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Voluntary offset schemes should have third party verification. Some common schemes include: Voluntary Carbon Standard, Plan Vivo, Gold Standard, American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve, and the Verified Carbon Standard Program.
However, for several years it has been recognised that we need a clear rule book for regulating the voluntary carbon credit market. At COP26 and in the discussions that follow, there will be a focus on agreeing to a scientifically robust rule-book for so-called ITMOs – Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes. These are rules for how companies and countries can trade offsets.
What can we do?
Each individual needs to take accountability for their own consumerism and have a good understanding of the net zero and emissions pledges of the companies and political parties they support. As Friends of the Earth note, “If a business or someone you know tells you they are going net zero, ask them just how far they are going in cutting their emissions. If someone tries to sell you an offset project, ask them if they will guarantee the carbon will be locked up for thousands of years and that the project has zero chance of being funded in any other way.”
Is carbon offsetting greenwashing?
The projects themselves, such as green energy, conservation, and tree planting are initiatives which should be encouraged. The greenwashing applies when fossil fuel and airline industries (and other industries/companies) pay into these schemes but continue to emit as normal. At the end of the day, our society is still driven by profit and consumerism. Buying our way out of climate change seems like greenwashing to me.
- Vox – Can you really negate your carbon emissions? Carbon offsets, explained.
- Unearthed – Leaked documents: Nations pushback against offsetting ‘greenwash’ claim
- Geoengineering – is it Greenwashing?
- Afforestation – Is it Greenwashing?
- Examples of Greenwashing 2021