Offset consultancy Climate Care has reported a ten-fold increase in offsetting over the last 18 months, and many major companies, including Microsoft, Delta Airlines and Google, have committed to carbon neutrality, partly through the use of offsets.
- Offsetting projects are positive initiatives but they have many issues. Crucially, they cannot be relied upon to remove sufficient carbon from the atmosphere in any reasonable timeframe.
- Contributions to organisations that support systemic change may be a more effective option than traditional offsetting.
The primary goal should be to reduce emissions of carbon as much as possible. Offsetting should never be a replacement for reduction and offsetting cannot ‘credit back’ carbon to your carbon budget.
ISSUES AROUND OFFSETTING
The true offsetting value of a project is sometimes overestimated. It can never be an alternative to emission reduction; in fact if offsetting is used as a way to avoid lowering one’s carbon footprint, it is a form of greenwashing, and ultimately does more harm than good.
- Additionality. Would the project that is being funded by the offset have happened anyway?
- Double Counting. Will the country the project takes place in count the project as part of its carbon reduction, as well as the body funding the project?
- Permanence. Will the project have lasting effects? Most trees require about 30 years to reach an age where they can meaningfully impact atmospheric carbon levels. Attrition rates of trees due to fire, disease, or logging is very high.
- Social or environmental harms. Some projects may cause more harm than good either through short-sighted biosphere engineering or the removal of peoples from their land to make way for tree farms or other such projects.
- Time is also an issue. Emissions we put in the air today are changing the climate right now. Most offsetting schemes only claim to reduce or remove equivalent carbon over decades. This is far too slow to balance out the impact of our emissions, especially when the climate crisis is so urgent.
- The best approach is to focus on reducing emissions, as offsetting can never be relied upon to remove the carbon emitted. While offset schemes have no guarantees, with careful selection, they can certainly aid the transition to a more sustainable and equitable world.
- Seek information about traditional offsetting projects. Gold Standard offers a number of certified schemes, but these still are liable to the issues above. Offset Guide helps inform a critical approach to offsets.
- As a potentially more effective alternative, calculate the financial cost of your carbon footprint and donate to companies that offer systemic change - an LSE paper from 2019 recommends a cost for 2020 of £50/$67 per tonne. Pick an organisation that fights climate change and donate directly to them. We recommend Client Earth.