10 questions about carbon offsetting
Lots of people have been asking us about carbon offsetting and if it’s an effective way to tackle climate change. Kirsten Firth of TTL’s steering group answers some common questions.
You’ve probably seen the offers to offset your climate impact when buying a train ticket, or the lager adverts with a friendly seal playing among newly planted sea-grass. Carbon offsetting is a mechanism that enables companies, local councils or individuals to balance out the carbon they emit by investing in projects that either remove carbon from the atmosphere or avoid emitting it in the first place, such as tree planting or renewable energy.
The idea is that by offsetting your own emissions with actions that can absorb or reduce carbon emitted elsewhere, you can create ‘net’ zero emissions. But is it that simple? Let’s look at some of the common concerns and questions that have arisen about carbon offsetting.
- Why is carbon offsetting controversial?
The carbon offset market has many flaws which have created serious doubts about its value in tackling climate change. Perhaps the most fundamental charge is that offsets are not about mitigating climate change but about enabling future carbon emissions, protecting economic growth and corporate profits. The aviation industry is particularly criticised for suggesting that carbon emissions from flying can be mopped up by offsetting the carbon elsewhere to make plane flights ‘carbon neutral’, when in reality greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will still increase.
Proponents claim, however, that carbon offsetting mechanisms can bring investment and accelerate essential tree planting, wetland restoration, and technology innovation.
- So when should carbon offsets be used?
Carbon offsetting should only be used as a last resort, not in place of, but together with direct emissions reduction efforts. But some emissions are very hard to remove despite technological advances. Offsetting could be a temporary measure if some emissions will take a long time to reduce or if there’s a lack of alternative technologies. In some sectors carbon offsetting is mandatory, such as energy-intensive industry including oil refineries, steel works, and production of iron.
But the bottom line has to be on focusing emissions as far as possible and only offsetting what can’t be cut directly.
- What are carbon credits?
Carbon credits are measurable, verifiable reductions in carbon emissions from certified climate action projects. Organisations can purchase these credits to balance the climate impact of their own operations and activities. Credits are tradable units that represent one tonne of carbon either removed or avoided. They can be stored and traded like a commodity, but they are not material things. A tonne can be purchased or sold only once – after a carbon credit is bought, the credit is permanently “retired” so it can’t be re-used.
- Why is the ‘cost of carbon’ important?
The cost of carbon is the price of one tonne of CO2 avoided or removed. The price varies wildly from one scheme to another, some based on carbon trading prices and others on the actual implementation cost of tackling carbon locally or in international projects. In the last couple of years, the price of carbon has rocketed, as international, national and local climate targets mean that more businesses and local councils are looking for verified offsets, and demand has started to outstrip supply.
In commercial offsetting schemes, projects are often located in developing countries as it is cheaper to invest there. Some projects may deliver extra value beyond carbon, for example empowering women or improving health, and this affects cost too. Carbon capture and storage technologies are vastly more expensive than planting trees.
- What kind of projects are used to offset carbon?
Projects can offset greenhouse gases by either removing emissions from the atmosphere (e.g. planting trees); avoiding emissions (e.g. renewable energy); or capturing and destroying emissions (e.g. capturing methane gas from wastewater for use as fuel). It’s difficult to separate the effects of removing carbon from the air from not increasing pollution in the atmosphere, and some projects do both.
From a carbon offsetting perspective, it doesn’t matter where in the world projects are located. Once greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere, they quickly spread around the globe. For example, Verra, the Verified Carbon Standard, invests in developing hydro-electric power plants in Sri Lanka, forest planting in China and wind power in Costa Rica.
- What are the most effective nature-based solutions?
Our natural environment offers some of the best opportunities for capturing and storing carbon, as well as benefiting wildlife. There’s a good reason why tree-planting is the go-to carbon offset – trees use carbon from the air to grow, pulling it down into their roots and storing it in their roots and timber. But it must be “the right tree in the right place”, with the right mix of native species, and planted where it will enhance biodiversity and wildlife – and trees don’t reach their full carbon-capture potential until they are 10 years old. Hedgerows work well too and are excellent habitats for small birds.
Restoration of natural habitats like peat bogs and salt marshes is also good for storing carbon. And there is increasing interest in the “blue carbon” potential of coastal and marine ecosystems such as sea-grass and kelp. The Sussex Bay project to regrow kelp beds off the coast from Selsey Bill to Beachy Head will launch in September. The Sussex Local Nature Partnership is working on an investment strategy that highlights the potential of carbon capture and storage in local landscapes.
- How are standards of carbon offset project verified?
There is a cocktail of standards and certification schemes to certify and register carbon offsets, depending on project type, size and location. The main official market is the EU Emissions Trading System, whose trading and compliance standards are obligatory for some carbon-intensive industries and governments.
Meanwhile range of voluntary verification standards for individuals and companies have emerged: Gold Standard requires projects to benefit the local population as well as cutting carbon; Climate Action Reserve and Verra offer hundreds of projects between them. While using different methodologies, these have become go-to standards for offset projects around the world.
In the UK, the Government’s Environmental Reporting Guidelines contain ‘good quality’ criteria for carbon offsetting projects – stipulating that they should be additional, verifiable and permanent. A new independent body is also being proposed to regulate carbon offsetting and allay fears of greenwashing. Looking internationally, the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets could begin operating later in 2021 to oversee legal principles and ensure that carbon credits are genuine and represent real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
- Doesn’t offsetting just give business (and governments) an excuse not to cut their own emissions?
Carbon offsets certainly give a problematic cultural signal that business as usual can continue, and provide an excuse to avoid responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. Organisations could ‘greenwash’ or conceal lax environmental standards with highly promoted carbon offsets. Many organisations are now looking for charismatic offsetting projects that will enhance their own branding and build their environmental reputation (e.g. the air fresheners that promise to restore wildflower meadows).
Greenhouse gases affect climate change now, and are not properly compensated for by offset schemes in the future (trees take decades to absorb carbon, for example). Climate change could even reduce the effectiveness of nature-based offset schemes to absorb carbon in the future, with more wildfires destroying carbon credit-protected forestry and other setbacks.
- If we are going to offset carbon, shouldn’t it happen close to home?
Lots of carbon offsetting projects by big companies seem to focus on taking action in farflung locations such as the Arctic or Amazon Basin. But there’s an increasing view that carbon offsetting projects should retain investment and benefits in the local community, economy and environment.
This may be especially attractive to local councils as it could keep investment and benefits closer to home, which means that taxpayers’ money is more favourably invested. There may be limited options for high-quality projects within a local authority’s boundaries. But there’s the potential for a simpler partnership agreement between local organisations that could help to stimulate more investable carbon reduction projects locally, along with community engagement.
- Should we be considering offsetting in our personal lives?
While there are plenty of online services inviting us each to plant trees or fund habitat restoration to help offset the carbon generated by our lifestyles, this approach is always playing catch up. It’s estimated that you’d need to fund the planting of 19 trees to offset a long-haul flight from the UK to Thailand. But a newly-planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises – and this effort can be wiped by droughts, tree disease or deforestation.
As stressed above, effective climate action requires everyone – individuals, households, businesses and governments – to focus first on eradicating the carbon emissions we generate as far as we possibly can, as quickly as we possibly can. Until we do that, carbon offsetting may be a dangerous distraction.
However, if you are seeking a trusted local investment in carbon reduction, a good option would be to investigate share offers in solar power from community energy companies (https://www.communityenergysouth.org/) or to support local nature organisations such as the Sussex Wildlife Trust. While these organisations don’t provide a full certificated carbon offset product, their work invests in reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels and improving local natural environment which can help to store carbon.