In theory, the process of 'offsetting' is supposed to remove the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere that the user has emitted, therefore allowing users to claim their emissions are 'neutral' or 'net zero'. 


Typically these schemes will sell 'carbon credits' that equate to the quantity of CO2e emitted. This money is then spent on projects that either claim to draw CO2e out of the atmosphere (such as tree planting), or prevent future emissions (such as renewable energy projects or clean-burning cooking stoves).


It is notoriously difficult to verify the effectiveness of these schemes. Because offsetting is based on future reductions or removals that have not yet happened, they rely on estimates and predictions that can vary greatly between offsetting companies. The calculations used are often opaque or based on untested assumptions, and yet these schemes are sold as reliable ways to 'cancel out' a precise amount of greenhouse gas.


Even worse, many offsetting schemes have been linked to land grabs, human rights abuses, and the replacement of wild habitats with monoculture plantations. There are multiple examples of people - especially Indigenous peoples and those in the Global South - being forced off their lands to make way for carbon offsetting projects, in a process that campaigners call 'carbon colonialism'. See here and here for examples.


There has been a push to certify 'best practice' offsets through schemes such as The Gold Standard, which require greater levels of transparency and accountability. However, this kind of certification still fails to address the more fundamental problems with carbon offsetting.




Criticisms of conventional carbon offsetting 

Few offsetting schemes seem to work as planned.

An investigation by Propublica in 2019 examined offsetting projects from the previous two decades and found that most had failed to deliver the reductions they promised. Some projects had run out of funds or not reached the promised scale; others would, in hindsight, have happened anyway without the funding from the carbon credits, making the offsets redundant. Many forest plantations had failed to grow or been ruined by bad weather or bad management. This problem has been exacerbated - with horrible irony - in recent years, as large swathes of forest previously sold as offsets have been destroyed in wildfires linked to the heating climate. A recent Guardian investigation found that 90% of the carbon offsets verified by major offsetting company Verra had not reduced deforestation.

Even if offsets work, they'll take effect too late.

In order to be affordable, offsetting schemes typically rely on gradually reducing emissions over decades. But we need to halve global emissions by 2030. Every tonne of CO2e we emit today starts heating the planet immediately. Planting trees that *might* absorb those emissions by 2040 or 2050 is little help at this point.

Offsets are being proposed on an impossible scale.

The offsetting plans of just three companies - Nestlé, Eni and Shell - would require new forests three times the size of Malaysia. If you add the tree-planting commitments to date of energy firms BP, Equinor and all the other corporations, there literally isn't enough room on the planet

Offsets are being used as an excuse to delay real action. 

We are in a climate emergency. We need to urgently reduce emissions across the board - as well as protecting, defending and expanding important carbon stores like forests. The strange logic of offsetting suggests that these different but equally important climate actions can somehow be set against each other - that it's OK to keep emitting over here, so long as you're creating some other carbon reduction over there. The reality is that we need to do both. Instead, offsetting and the language of 'net zero' is being used by big polluters to claim that they can carry on with only minor changes to their business models. For example, both Shell and BP have set 'net zero' targets that use the dubious promise of future carbon reductions to justify expanding new oil and gas extraction today - an approach that flies in the face of climate science and UN targets.

Offsets don't create systemic change.

We all have limited resources to spend on climate action. We believe it makes sense to spend those resources strategically on solutions that will create real, lasting change, in the timescales that we need. Offsetting projects are, by their nature, focused on reaching a specific amount of carbon on a balance sheet, rather than achieving meaningful systemic change.

Offsets allow for a "Pay here to make your environmentally damaging activities OK" mentality.

This is entirely the wrong framing for environmental action and is used for misleading claims of 'climate neutrality' and as an excuse to delay real action.

Offsets are often sold at too low a price to be effective.

Carbon credits can be bought for as little as $5 per tonne. When you consider administrative costs and other supply chain factors, this 'compensation' is unlikely to amount to a meaningful amount and certainly does not reflect the damage done to the environment that offsetting claims to neutralise.


For all of these reasons, GCC has concluded that conventional carbon offsetting is not the fastest, fairest or most effective way to support environmental causes and therefore strongly recommends avoiding offsetting entirely. Instead, we have developed Strategic Climate Funds as a more effective way to think about financing environmental initiatives.


Criticisms of carbon offsetting have been around for a long time - back in 2007, a satirical project called 'Cheat Neutral' highlighted many of these issues in a humorous way. For a more recent parody, check out 'Murder Offsets' from 2021.

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