Should I offset the emissions that I can’t reduce?
This is a common question we hear from GCC members. If you’ve committed to reducing the carbon emissions of your gallery, measured your current footprint, set some ambitious targets and made some action plans, then you’ve already taken some important steps to help tackle the climate crisis.
But the arts sector isn’t going to become zero carbon overnight. It’s going to take time to build up the solutions, shift away from more polluting ways of working and bring everybody on board. Cleaner transport and energy alternatives do exist, but they’re not always easily available or affordable yet. So what do we do about all the emissions we’re responsible for in the meantime?
Concerns around conventional offsetting
The idea of conventional ‘carbon offsetting’ is to pay someone to reduce or remove some emissions elsewhere, perhaps by planting trees or installing solar panels, to make up for the greenhouse gases you’ve produced.
However, it’s incredibly difficult to verify the effectiveness of any of these schemes, because they all rely on things happening in the future. If you plant some trees today, they might pull a certain amount of carbon out of the air over the next few decades – but how do we know the tree will survive that long? Are we sure it’s the right sort of tree, in the right soil, and not part of a monoculture plantation causing other environmental problems, or part of a process whereby local local people are kicked off their land? When an airline offers us a box to tick to offset our flight, we rarely know what carbon calculations they’ve used or what untested assumptions might lie behind their claims.
A number of schemes exist to try to certify ‘best practice’ offsets. But even these rely on reducing carbon over long future time frames. We know we need to halve global emissions in the next ten years to avoid the most catastrophic climate scenarios, so putting money into a scheme that might save some carbon by 2050 doesn’t feel like the best use of our funds right now.
For more information on the problems with offsetting, see this very helpful report by the arts sustainability charity Julie’s Bicycle.
Sustainable culture advisors Ki Culture make the following recommendation in their 2021 Energy Book for galleries:
You have three options for 'offsetting' and investing in a greener future.
- Donate to a charity or project that isn’t an offsetting scheme but has great environmental impact
- Reinvest the money into your own sustainability projects
- Offsetting schemes (vetted and certified)
We like to advocate for investing in projects and in our own futures, which is why we have put offsetting schemes in last.
At GCC, we agree with this position. Rather than schemes that promise to neutralise a specific amount of carbon – which tend to have long timescales, unverifiable figures, and rarely involve any social or cultural change – we’d recommend seeking out projects that will have the most strategic impact over the next few years, to help urgently shift the world onto a zero-carbon path.
This could include initiatives within the arts sector itself, building up low-carbon alternatives for displaying, packaging and transporting art. It could involve support for community renewable schemes, helping to reduce the carbon footprint of the electricity grid that we all use. Or it could include strategic campaigns and projects around the world that are helping to keep fossil fuels in the ground or protect and expand living forests right now.
These projects won’t make your emissions disappear. But they’re a way to take responsibility for the greenhouse gases that you can’t yet cut, and help accelerate wider shifts in society that will help us all to make those reductions faster.
See below for some suggestions of organisations and campaigns that we believe are worth supporting at this time. If you have any ideas or suggestions of your own, please get in touch.
Unlike conventional offsetting, it isn’t possible to attach a specific carbon saving figure to most of these initiatives. However, we can still use our carbon footprints as a guideline for how much we should contribute – a kind of internal 'carbon tax'.
The Julie’s Bicycle report (pages 16 – 17) summarises several pieces of research into the 'price' of a tonne of carbon, and finds a range of figures (between £40 and £335) for the cost of the damage caused to the world by a tonne of CO2 emissions. A reasonable mid-range seems to be £50 to £100 per tonne, as a rough guide to the amount we might want to spend on compensating the harm caused by our emissions. We’d recommend choosing a figure within this range based on what seems affordable within your budgets, while also being high enough to act as a useful spur to reduce your emissions.
If galleries commit to spending between £50 - £100 per tonne of CO2e per year, this will add up to a significant amount of funds going into world-changing projects, and also act as an extra incentive to reduce our footprints faster.
Some of us are still using the term ‘offsetting’ to describe this approach, although we do need to make it clear that this is different from conventional carbon offsets. We’re also using terms like ‘internal carbon tax’, ‘strategic climate fund’, or ‘climate compensation scheme.' (As in 'we’ve set up an internal carbon tax that puts money into a strategic climate fund, which we then spend on positive projects that help tackle the climate crisis'). We’d be interested to hear how you might describe it.
Suggested projects to support
Initiatives within the arts sector
To create a truly sustainable arts sector, we need cleaner, affordable alternatives for international shipping, local art transport, low-energy lighting and temperature control, packaging, display materials, printing, and international travel. Some of these already exist, others need our support to get off the ground. We’re planning to build a list of projects and initiatives – whether it’s cycle-powered city transport, reusable gallery sets, recycled packaging, travel-free art fairs or zero-carbon shipping – where a few of us getting together and pitching in (either with financial investment or committing to use the service despite higher-than-average initial costs) could help make them a mainstream reality. Watch this space – and please tell us about any initiatives you’ve heard about that could use our support.
Strategic projects and campaigns making a real difference around the world
The following projects have been selected as they are all making an important difference to the climate crisis right now. We’ve tried to choose projects where your money will:
- make a significant and strategic impact between now and 2030.
- not just help shift the world onto a lower carbon path, but also support those who are impacted most by climate change. Such projects have other social benefits too.
- allow you to tell powerful stories about how this money was spent.
We’ve purposefully chosen projects that span the three major areas where urgent climate action is needed:
- keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
- defending and expanding forests and wetlands.
- shifting to climate-friendly agriculture.
It’s up to you whether to just choose one or two projects that resonate with you, or split your contribution between all of them. This is just an initial list and isn't set in stone - we'll continue to review and update it, listen to feedback and introduce more options as we go along.
We have researched these initiatives and support them ourselves, but we are not currently affiliated with any of them in any formal sense. Again, please do tell us about projects you think we should learn more about.
Cutting fossil fuel use and supporting the clean transition:
- ClientEarth are an environmental charity with a unique approach. They use existing environmental laws to challenge polluting projects – and win. In the last two years their actions have helped stop the construction of three huge coal plants in Poland and Germany and a giant gas plant in the UK, amongst a range of other victories. At the time of writing, they are pursuing 169 active legal cases around the world. In 2017, they were named the ‘UK’s most effective environmental organisation’ by the Environmental Funders Network. You can read more about ClientEarth here and donate to them here.
- Solar Aid work to help communities in Africa ‘leapfrog’ over dirty energy and build a clean energy future. Their mission is to provide solar lighting to every home, school and clinic in Africa by 2030, replacing millions of polluting kerosene lamps and preventing the need for new fossil-fuelled power stations. They don't just hand out solar lights - they work with local partners to build knowledge, capacity and skills in communities with the aim of creating a long-term sustainable solar lighting market that can thrive without outside support. You can read more about SolarAid here and donate to them here.
Defending and preserving forests:
- Art to Acres works with local communities on large-scale land conservation projects. The project has helped to provide legal status and protection to millions of hectares of rainforest land, in partnership with Indigenous peoples and other local communities. There are many more large areas of global forest where local people have persuaded their governments to apply these protections in theory, but the resources are not available for them to be properly implemented. Donating to Art to Acres can help make these protections a reality in many more places, keeping huge amounts of carbon safely locked up in forests for years to come. Donate to Art to Acres here.
Supporting regenerative agriculture:
- The Agroecology Fund supports inspiring projects around the world that are changing the way we produce food. Industrial agriculture is a huge source of emissions - not just from fuel use and livestock, but nitrous emissions from fertilisers and massive amounts of carbon from short-sighted soil management. Agroecology (combining traditional methods of farming with appropriate renewable technology) doesn't just prevent emissions in the short term, it has the potential to pull huge amounts of carbon back into the soil in the longer term, while supporting local livelihoods and sustainably feeding the world. Read more about the Agroecology Fund here and donate to them here.
Investing in community decarbonisation of the electricity grid
This is a slightly separate category of action as it can generate a financial return, and so should probably not be counted as part of a strategic climate donation.
We can help reduce the carbon footprint of the electricity we all use, by supporting the people who are connecting new clean energy to the grid. In particular, we can do the most good by supporting community-owned energy projects that bring other benefits to people and communities.
These grassroots, co-operative projects are springing up all over the world, and a common way they raise funds is via community share offers. By investing in these projects, you can generate some financial return while – more importantly – helping to decarbonise the electricity grid. There’s probably one near you that could contact and see if they’re currently looking for investors. Here are some starting points for different countries:
- Community Energy England
- Community Energy Scotland
- Community Energy Wales
- Community Energy Northern Ireland
- In addition, Abundance and Ethex often have UK community energy projects seeking investment on their websites.
- Indigenous Clean Energy (Indigenous communities are taking a particular lead on this in Canada)
Research and write up: Danny Chivers, Environmental advisor, GCC.