Everyone is probably familiar with carbon offsets. They’re a popular mechanism by which an organisation or an individual can offset their emissions through buying ‘credits’, which equate to an activity that acts as a carbon sink such as reforestation or the production of solar farms. For each ton of carbon emissions, an organisation can buy a credit for $8-10USD and call it even.
For organisations that are struggling to find ways to reduce their emissions, carbon offsetting provides a convenient solution so that even if they produce excessive emissions, they can still meet their targets and requirements for accounting purposes. For individuals, it means that they can purchase a flight ticket overseas guilt-free.
I looked into the purchasing of carbon credits a week ago and was surprised at how easy the process seemed. Was it really that simple? Could you burn as much fossil fuels as you wanted and then buy the equivalent in credit and call it even? And how useful were they as a measure of effectively neutralising emissions?
Upon closer examination of the subject, problems quickly made themselves evident.
One issue is that many carbon offsetting schemes would have gone ahead without the purchasing of credits. A carbon offset must be additional. For example, investing in a wind turbine farm that would have been constructed regardless of the carbon offsetting project is not a legitimate method for reducing emissions.
Another problem is that when, for example, you buy credits to offset your flights to Europe, the value of the credit is contingent on certain factors. For example, if the carbon offsetting mechanism is planting trees, the assumption is that those trees will survive for a hundred years.
This is difficult to guarantee. Impossible, in some cases. In others, the trees are never even planted to begin with. A study by the European Union found that a staggering 85% of carbon offsetting projects were not additional and likely overestimated, with only 2% of the projects having a high likelihood of legitimately reducing emissions.
This is not a new problem, and there are international standards by which people can differentiate between high quality and low-quality carbon offsets. To ensure that the credits you purchase will have a direct impact, it’s crucial to ensure that they are certified by a third party, like the Gold Standard and Verified Carbon Standard, which organisations like Climate Action Reserve and South Pole do for their projects. If you’re a larger company like Google then you might even have an in-team whose purpose is to investigate the veracity of such projects.
Another factor to consider is that carbon offsetting credits do not consider the chain of production, only the final product. If you offset your flight or road trip across the country, then the calculation for the credits does not take into account the roads, the manufacturing of the wheels on the car, or the congestion you’ve created throughout the trip.
The possibility that a mistake occurs somewhere down the chain of events is high. This isn’t to say that carbon offsetting credits aren’t a useful and viable method of meeting our Paris Agreement obligations - they are! In having a market for carbon credits, there’s an incentive for businesses to do better and make a change towards sustainability.
However, it’s necessary to keep in mind that, at best, it legitimately offsets the emissions produced by a business. At worst, it gives the appearance of neutralisation and encourages a system in which businesses can mitigate their costs without creating genuine change.
If the cleanest kilowatt of energy is the one never produced, then the most effective means of reducing your carbon footprint is to have never created the emissions to begin with, rather than addressing it after the fact.