What carbon offsets are, how and why they're purchased and why they're not our golden ticket to curbing emissions growth.
Before we kick off we want to acknowledge that this is an inherently complicated topic, with strong arguments both for and against. Carbon offsets have become an increasingly popular tactic for fighting climate change. At its most basic, a business, government or individual can pay someone else to cut (or remove) a given quantity of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This is known as ‘buying a carbon offset’.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS
Carbon offset projects have to meet three criteria to be effective. 1. There must be additionality, meaning the project could not have happened if it wasn’t funded by carbon offsets. 2. No leakage – emissions can’t be reduced in one place if it means they’re increased somewhere else instead. 3. It must be permanent – so it won’t be reversed in the future.
All incredibly hard things to guarantee, or even police.
GOOD ON PAPER
But we all know how that story goes. Offsetting has morphed into a ‘get out of jail free card’ of sorts for big corporations looking to avoid sustainable restructuring. In some cases, the largest polluters exceeded allowed emissions in return for funding projects, such as forest preservation. As journalist Lisa Song recalls, “In case after case, I found that carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with. Ultimately, the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO2, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last.”
WHICH PROJECTS YOU SPEAK OF?
The types of carbon offset projects that corporations buy from are diverse. They range from planting trees, protecting existing forests, or renewable energy projects. Many reports on offsetting projects show that they simply don’t deliver on, well, offsetting carbon - especially when it comes to tree planting and reforestation projects.
DEAR TREES, IT’S NOT YOU. IT’S US.
Planting trees to save the earth is certainly alluring, and definitely has a place in the race against climate change. It’s our way of feeling like we are physically giving back to the planet in a way that will have long term positive impacts. However, planting rows of monoculture trees is not beneficial to ecosystems, and it can’t replace slashing carbon emissions. One newly-planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises, and needs to live for 100 years to make an impact on CO2 levels (and not get chopped down - try promising that will never happen).
The Climate Council Australia supports limited carbon offsetting for unavoidable fossil fuel use while implementing sustainable alternatives. “If you are planning to offset unavoidable fossil fuel use, our advice is to offset like-for-like. If the source of greenhouse gas emissions is burning fossil fuels, then this should be offset through projects that avoid the consumption of fossil fuels elsewhere”. In other words, an oil company burning high levels of emissions funding a project planting trees is not sufficient.
WHAT ABOUT US?
On the other end of the spectrum, individuals like you and I might choose to offset a plane flight for a small price. Can we be sure it’s doing what the airline says it’s doing? Not entirely, as research shows it’s not always possible to prove. But very few of us can live a carbon-free lifestyle, so individuals buying offsets can act as a buffer until a more sustainable way of travelling is in place.
SUMS IT UP
Carbon offset projects will never curb emission growth if fossil fuels continue to be burnt, and petrol cars continue to be bought, and our growing global population is given no option but to consume the way we are today. But it’s certainly a place to start. We’re keen to hear from you - where do you stand on carbon offsetting?