Carbon offsetting, what is it and is it any good? The premise is quite simple. The idea being that if you partake in an activity that emits a lot of carbon dioxide, such as flying, you then contribute to an activity (often in the form of donating to an organisation) that removes carbon from the atmosphere. Commonly, this involves an organisation that plants trees. Therefore, if a flight emits x amount of CO2, you pay a company to plant enough trees to remove the same amount from the atmosphere, effectively making the journey net zero in carbon emissions. In principle this seems like a promising idea, in practice however it is fraught with problems. It is important to mention that whilst the following points are relevant to consider for individuals trying to be eco-friendly, it is more important when analysing the policies of companies and governments trying to look green, because often it is all show and little substance.
Overestimations and Lack of Additional Benefits
It has been shown multiple times that offsetting schemes overestimate the amount of carbon that they remove. It is a tricky thing to calculate, if we look at the case of planting trees (the most common scheme), you are typically planting young trees which will take a long time to grow and remove the amount of carbon promised by the scheme. Meanwhile, the emitted carbon has impacts immediately. Furthermore, they often fail to include the inevitable emissions from the process of planting, the machinery used, the transportation of seeds, the workers and so on. It is not as simple as planting a huge tree and immediately removing the desired amount of carbon. The other frequently used scheme is saving an area of forest, this potentially reduces the problems with the previous example as you have mature trees removing carbon and do not need to go through the process of planting and waiting. However, it is not always clear that the area they promise to stop from being cut down is threatened. Additionally, this can lead to other areas that were not about to be chopped down instead being deforested. This makes calculating exactly how much has been emitted and how much as been removed really quite difficult and therefore frequently inaccurate.
Additionally, it is a sad fact that forests do not always survive. With increased frequency the world is seeing extreme cases of decimating forest fires. In some cases, this is a natural process vital for the health of the ecosystem, in others it is devastating. Regardless, if it occurs in a forest that is being used as part of an offsetting project, that stored carbon is immediately lost into the atmosphere.
Along a similar line is the problem of calculating the additional benefits. This essentially means that to successfully offset, the project must cause additional carbon sequestering that would not occur if the scheme was not in place. This again is an incredibly awkward thing to calculate as it is impossible to know exactly what would happen if the scheme was not there. However, studies have shown that most UN (United Nations) sanctioned projects were unlikely to result in additional emissions reductions. Further adding to the overestimation of the effectiveness of carbon offsetting schemes.
Delaying Real Change
An unexpected side effective of offsetting schemes is the potential to actually worsen climate climate change. Providing companies and governments with the simple solution of donating to an offsetting scheme to look good and meet environmental targets, could result in them delaying the implementation of emission reducing schemes. Because signing up to an offsetting scheme is both simple and relatively cheap, it may prevent the making of more difficult decisions and ultimately slow down real change. On a larger scale it can even "allow" the continuation of fossil fuel use or the construction of coal mines and oil rigs because the resulting emmisions can simply be offset. This is potentially one of the most detrimental impacts of carbon offsetting schemes, because not only are they proving be ineffective at removing the promised amount of carbon from the atmosphere, but they can also provide an excuse to continue the expansion of climate damaging industries.
The above points highlight some of the difficulties in devising an effective carbon offsetting scheme based on accurate calculations. However, the biggest flaw is the heavy reliance on the concept of net zero, this idea of removing the equivalent CO2 as you admit, rather than reducing emissions. This is fundamentally worse than implementing strategies to reduce emissions. Doing a good thing (e.g., donating to an organisation that plants trees) is great, but it does not negate the effects of a bad thing. It would be similar to donating to an organisation that removes plastic pollution from the Pacific Ocean whilst dumping plastic in the Atlantic Ocean. Even if the amount removed is equivalent to the amount dumped, resulting in the total amount of plastic in the world’s oceans not changing, it does not negate the impact of dumping plastic in the Atlantic. Similarly, planting trees in one part of the world whilst emitting tons of CO2 elsewhere doesn’t prevent the environmental damage done by that activity. Ultimately, the idea of net zero is not a solution to combat climate change and this severely impacts the usefulness of offsetting emissions.
Don’t get me wrong, organisations and projects that work towards preserving ecosystems that sequester carbon, be it forest, peatlands, or oceans, or those that plant trees and re-wild are excellent for the environment and biodiversity and certainly deserve support. However, supporting these schemes under the guise of removing the same amount of carbon as is emitted from a certain activity to allow the continuation of those activities is not the answer to climate change. We should continue trying to protect and rejuvenate these habitats whilst also fundamentally changing our global habits to reduce our impact on the planet. As mentioned at the start, this is relevant to individuals in the sense that we now often get the chance of “offset” our flights by donating to a scheme when purchasing a ticket. And it is important to ensure that the scheme being used is actually doing good things whilst also recognising that the idea of offsetting a flight is somewhat flawed. However, recognising the issues with offsetting is crucial when looking at companies and governments promising to combat climate change with offsetting being their primary method of doing so. When choosing companies and policies to support it is important to recognise real solutions as opposed to greenwashing, those that make the organisation sound good and like they care, whilst doing the bare minimum to help the climate. Ultimately, we should be putting pressure on big polluters (oil companies, airlines, and agricultural companies) to find real solutions that actually reduce their emissions, for example, switching to renewables or reducing their waste. Rather than spending time trying to look as though they are prioritising the climate through donating to offsetting schemes, whilst continuing with their detrimental activities. Individuals can donate to good organisations and reduce their own carbon footprint, but ideally we all need to put pressure on these companies/governments to implement systemic change.
A great blog post by ‘Friends of the Earth’ - https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate/does-carbon-offsetting-work
A detailed study for the European Commission into the UN projects - https://ec.europa.eu/clima/sites/clima/files/ets/docs/clean_dev_mechanism_en.pdf
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Matthew Woodard: Photographer, coffee addict, whisky lover, book worm.