Is it good to offset our carbon?
Offsetting carbon is an industry where you can pay for carbon to be taken out of the atmosphere elsewhere, offsetting the amount you are about to emit.
Some offsetting schemes offer to offset a tonne of CO2 for £3! This sounds incredibly cheap, right? This means an average UK person could offset their yearly carbon emission for £40. It’s means climate change could be fixable for just 0.2% of the worlds GDP! (these numbers from ‘How bad are bananas’- a book I’ve recommended here before) so something here sounds fishy- let’s have a look.
What is carbon offsetting?
By buying a portion of saved emissions you could be sponsoring any of these sorts of projects:
- renewable energy projects in developing parts of the world
- energy saving measures (such as low energy light bulbs)
- Saving apportion of rainforest from being cut down
- Buying emissions trading tokens and ripping them up
- Planting trees
Some of these are more problematic than others, we’re going to explore some of the problems and the areas where carbon offsetting schemes can also be detrimental to the cause.
It’s really cheap! It’s almost ridiculously cheap. This is because there are so many very cheap ways to reduce emissions. In theory as soon as the cheapest, easiest emission cutting schemes have gone ahead, offsetting emissions would become more expensive.
There are a lot of dubious projects though. Sometimes it’s cheap because the emissions saving comes from an area where there is a big financial incentive to reduce emissions. In these cases there is a high change that the activity would have happened anyway.
Below are four big problem areas with offsetting: (originally the 4 main ones from the Greenpeace carbon offset page but fleshed out with a lot more general reading)
Problem area 1
As I already introduced above, we need to stop all carbon emissions to save the planet so any offsetting of additional emission you’re creating needs to be IN ADDITION to the things already taking place. It’s really hard to measure how likely some schemes are to have happened anyway. There’s a report written by a German institute of applied ecology that looks at how ‘additional’ these carbon saving mechanisms are. And they thought that between 73% and 85% of all projects had low likelihood of being ‘additional’ or not overestimated. So in other words only 15% to 27% are additional and accurate in their reporting of the actual emissions they save. If projects are going to happen anyway then you’re not really offsetting carbon, you’re just giving a green conscience to individuals buying the offsets.
Problem area 2
Are the measures permanent? The offsetting measures should be things that take carbon out of the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Trees is a perfect example of the problems with these long term promised. Trees absorb huge amounts of carbon over their lifetimes, but only when they live for thousands of years. Forest fires or tree diseases can kill trees before their time. As they burn or decompose, they release all the carbon they have absorbed from the atmosphere while they were growing. Draught, pests, disease and forest fires are all becoming increasingly common with global warming. When you buy the offset, you’re buying the offset of the lifetime of the tree. There’s no checking back in and sending another invoice if all the carbon saved is accidentally re-released.
Sometimes, the emission cuts come from preventing an action like deforestation. By saving trees you’re protecting the emissions that would come from deforesting. These issues are complex because while there is demand for wood or land for animals to graze, saving one portion of forest may just result in a different area of forest being cut down instead. This is really hard to measure so there’s no guarantee that the action you’re sponsoring will help the planet overall.
Sometimes emissions are compared that are not comparable. For example equating a tonne of emissions from a flight is not equal to saving a ton of emissions in a village through renewable energy. Emissions at higher altitudes (the hight where planes fly) have a more intense warming effect. There’s also the question of time. A tonne of emissions savings now is worth a lot more than a tonne of savings in 2 years. Depending on how projects are set up, some will only start with the funding so by the time the savings happen time will have passed and the savings will have lost value. Some savings are long term. You’ll only recoup saving from an energy efficient bulb over a number of years. It wouldn’t all be recouped in the first year. Yet as time goes on, emission savings loose relative value.
By this I mean if you’re emitting one tonne today, you have to offset a lot more. The longer the tonne you’ve emitted sits in the atmosphere, the more warming effect it has time to create. You’d have to take out way more carbon if you’re doing it in a few years time because you’ll also have to counteract the effects that have already happened. Now that the industry is bigger, some companies who sell offsetting invest in projects and sell the emissions once they’re already happening. But still, it’s a tricky thing to calculate and this makes the whole industry messy.
Is carbon offsetting bad?
It’s bad because it distracts from the actual problem. Massive corporations with horrific environmental track records, who cause mass destruction on a daily basis, get the opportunity to market themselves as socially conscious by offering citizens the opportunity to offset their emissions. By doing this they are shifting the moral responsibility onto consumers (BINGO! A classic tactic of companies and governments and outrageously unfair).
In terms of individual guilt and conscience at things like flying, it’s not great if it means people keep flying… it doesn’t tackle the problems
There is a third big issue with offsetting. That is of global inequality. Schemes such as tree planting will usually betaken up in the global south. This is mostly because it’s much cheaper for companies to offer schemes there. However, it is a big ethical issue. Whenever there’s business around agriculture/land use and there’s money to be made, it will likely be at the cost of local communities with no economic power. Rich natural habitats have been destroyed in the past for tree planting monocultures. The land might be needed for something else by local people but the higher value of offsetting might give locals no access. You can read an example of the Sengwer people in Kenya here who have been violently displaced from their land because of carbon offsetting projects.
Can carbon offsetting be good?
Well, could it work as an incentive? If measuring effectiveness of offsetting actions improved could it be like a carbon tax on flying? What is rather than offsetting the cost of a flight, you offset 5 times that flight? Maybe the additional cost would reduce the numbers to some extent. I think the principle could be so good but it can’t be a PR stunt.
There are better ways to financially support the environment. If people donated 50% of the cost of each flight they book to a really strong environmental cause it could be MORE effective than the offset schemes on offer. But people generally wouldn’t do that. If it’s not made SUPER easy for us to do, we won’t adopt it as a habit. In that respect, an add on in a good way or reminding people for donations so long as the kudos doesn’t go to the airline company. They can’t take the moral high ground for selling these services and passing off the responsibility to the consumer. The same goes for the petroleum companies who market themselves as green by shifting moral responsibility to road users to offset their petrol. Not ok.
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