Author: Rose Ellis

Carbon offsetting is being heralded by some as the saviour of our times and it’s easy to see why. But airlines and oil companies, for example, have inevitably jumped on the offsetting boat and it can seem all a bit hypocritical – some of the world’s biggest carbon culprits also being the most ‘eco’. Offsetting is shrouded in controversy and has some big-time critics, with Greenpeace writing “the biggest problem with offsetting is that it doesn’t really work”. Is carbon offsetting really just a ‘get out of jail free card’, which facilitates and encourages massive emitters to continue with business-as-usual? The UN doesn’t think so, and David Attenborough is regularly heard encouraging tree planting and investment in renewables (BBC). It is a complex topic, and done right, has fantastic potential but there also needs to be critical change happening alongside offsets.

The need for a solution to the climate crisis is becoming evermore prevalent. Excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the biggest threat to safeguarding the Earth’s future. Acting as a blanket, greenhouse gases trap heat from the sun and global warming is the deadly result. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction (National Geographic); the ocean is quite literally rising, and the future is threatened like never before. To keep temperatures from reaching a 1.5 °C increase from pre-industrial times – the magic number raised by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – billions of tonnes of carbon need to be recaptured.

The principle is relatively simple. Carbon offsetting offers a way for both individuals and corporations to balance out their carbon emissions with the purchasing of carbon credits, where one carbon credit is the equivalent of one tonne of carbon captured. Carbon credits are generated in a number of ways, from woodland creation, to providing more fuel-efficient cooking stoves, to investing in renewable energy. Once bought from the Registry, credits are then ‘retired’ so they can only be used to offset once.

For a carbon credit to be accredited, it must be proven to have ‘additionality’, which means that the carbon offset project would not have happened without carbon offsetting. This in itself poses difficulties, unless there are secret crystal balls lying around that is. How can the future be predicted to this degree? Technology is progressing at such a rate; impossible things are becoming possible and global warming means what were once freak events are becoming increasingly customary. For example, woodland that was ‘guaranteed’ to be protected under the REDD scheme may end up being illegally logged or wildfires could end up destroying it – in the blink of an eye, a carbon sink becomes a carbon source. Not the desired outcome and not an unrealistic one either.

Greenpeace believes one of the issues is that “not all carbon offsets are created equal” and this is reflected in the target locations of offset projects. It is cheaper to create a project in the Global South, the very definition of modern-day colonialism when Indigenous People’s rights are discarded. For example, in Kenya the Sengwer people of the Embobut Forest have been brutally displaced from their ancestral lands by the government to reduce deforestation (Amnesty International). For offsets to work how we need them to, they need to be transparent. Ultimately, rich nations have been the main perpetrators, burning the most fossil fuels, and yet they don’t seem to want to invest in restoring their wrongdoing without getting something in return (ProPublica).

Carbon offsetting is leading to bold and blazon claims such as ‘net zero’, which means that companies are paying to offset all of their carbon emissions. Yet it doesn’t necessarily compute to being morally responsible. The key is that emissions themselves need to be drastically reduced too. Offsets can make fossil fuels more palatable for consumers and we cannot afford for offsetting to just become another greenwashing tool to continue unsustainable energy consumption. It is predicted that by 2050 there will be a capacity of roughly 85 MtCO2e carbon sequestration in the UK, but this is still much less than estimated carbon emissions will be by then (The Committee on Climate Change).

Reaching net zero by 2050, as laid out by the Green New Deal, is an ambitious yet crucial task. Voluntary carbon offsetting puts the onus on the individual, legislators shirking their own accountability for change. Quadruple the amount of Gold Standard offsets have been purchased in the last year (National Geographic), showing a promisingly large influx of offset carbon conscious consumers. But the market-based approach for individual companies also distract from the impactful progresses that happen when an industry is regulated (National Geographic). In this same vain, offsetting may discourage emission reduction from happening quickly enough (Friends of the Earth).

Carbon offsetting offers a way to help but it is not the one all-hail solution by all means. It is a powerful model that will work best in conjunction with slashing carbon emissions and only with full transparency. If we are to avoid reaching a greenhouse gas tipping point that will inevitably lead to irreversible change, we must have a genuine and positive intent behind offsetting decisions. Carbon offsetting can absolutely make a true impact, but it’s conditional.