Can we pay our way out of climate change?

Put simply, carbon offsetting means purchasing carbon credits equivalent to your carbon footprint. Gas and electricity use, driving, flying… all of these contribute to your total carbon impact, and carbon credits are designed to help ‘mitigate’ this impact. Typically, these carbon credits come in the form of tree-planting, although there are a wide variety of projects designed to reduce emissions – clean energy technologies in developing countries, for example. Offset schemes vary widely in terms of cost, although a fairly typical fee is currently around £12 for each tonne of CO2.

Is carbon offsetting popular?

In terms of uptake, it has mixed success. Carbon offsetting is particularly popular among large businesses and organisations looking for ways to limit their impact on the environment. While some individuals might spend a bit of money to help offset their personal carbon impact, companies are spending eye-watering sums to help ‘neutralise’ their footprints. By doing so they’re able to claim a variety of green credentials, which is obviously good news for their brand reputation. ‘Net zero’ is the phrase du jour, with companies, councils and even whole countries committing to removing as many emissions as they produce. Carbon offsetting is one way of doing this.

So carbon offsetting will stop climate change?

In a word: no. Carbon offsetting schemes, while popular for their ease and convenience, are hugely controversial. Firstly, while they might work in theory, research by the European Commission (EC) has found that in practice, they’re pretty ineffective. This report suggests that 75% of offset projects were ‘unlikely’ to have resulted in any additional carbon emissions reductions. ‘Additional’ is important here – to be effective the offset project must be in addition to what was going to happen anyway. This in itself is hard to determine – as the EC report notes, a lot of energy-related projects would happen anyway because there’s already a strong demand for energy.

Secondly, to be effective, an offset project must lock carbon away permanently. While tree planting is the go-to offset scheme, there’s no guarantee that the trees won’t burn down, be killed by pests or disease, or simply chopped down to make way for farming and roads. If this happens, the tree’s carbon mitigating potential is eradicated. And don’t forget, trees don’t grow overnight. A newly-planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises – anything could happen to it within that time.

Thirdly, the offset project needs to capture more carbon than is being emitted, and this is also hard to quantify. Some schemes – such as those that help households in developing countries switch to more efficient cooking stoves – could exaggerate emissions savings. In other cases, emissions can have a variable impact on the planet – a tonne of carbon from a plane causes more harm than a tonne of carbon from other sources, for example. This also needs to be taken into account.

Finally, no carbon offset scheme has an instant impact. As mentioned above, trees take time to grow, behavioural change takes time to embed and technologies take time to develop. Scientists have repeatedly warned that we will see increasingly negative effects from climate change within the next several decades – long before many of these offset schemes will have started to make any tangible difference.

Is carbon offsetting a scam?

No, but it’s not the silver bullet many of its advocates would have you believe. Planting trees, investing in renewable energy projects and funding initiatives around the world are certainly not harming the planet. The problem is that many people – or more specifically, companies – view offset schemes as a quick way to assuage climate guilt, by throwing money at the problem rather than directly reducing greenhouse gases.

In reality, everyone – individuals and organisations alike – needs to take meaningful action on the emissions they’re already producing by eliminating them at the source, rather than trying to counteract their excesses at some unspecified point in the future. For companies, however, this means changing the way they operate, when many would rather continue with business as usual. For individuals, this means making small adjustments to everyday life – there’s plenty of inspiration around this website, especially in our Do One Thing section. But if you want to invest in an offset scheme on top of making positive, emissions-slashing changes, by all means do so long as it doesn’t delay direct action.

The bottom line

Carbon offsetting schemes are often touted as a convenient way to mitigate human activity on the planet, and are therefore generally seen as ‘good for the climate’. But this is a damaging perception, as what’s really needed to benefit the climate is work and dedication to reducing emissions in the first place.

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