At first glance, carbon offsetting seems like a good way for us to limit our impact on the environment. In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated.
We'll explore what is carbon offsetting, why it's not a silver bullet solution for climate change, and what role it could play in a business' net zero transition.
What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offsetting involves ‘balancing out’ your greenhouse gas emissions by donating to or investing in schemes that reduce emissions elsewhere.
For example, Business X wants to offset the CO2e emitted by their company flights, and so invests money in a renewables project.
Thanks to their investment, that renewable energy project is then, theoretically, able to prevent an equivalent amount of CO2e from being pumped into the atmosphere by fossil fuels—thus 'cancelling out' Business X's carbon emissions.
Sounds pretty good, right?
What’s bad about carbon offsetting?
How nice would it be if carbon offsetting were the answer to climate change? Unfortunately, that's simply not the case—actually, it has the potential to make things worse.
“A newly-planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises. We would have to plant and protect a massive number of trees for decades to offset even a fraction of global emissions.” (Greenpeace)
As the above quote succinctly captures, a lot of the offsetting programmes out there currently focus on tree planting. And hey, we love trees—the more of 'em, the better. But paying to plant a tree that'll take decades to capture the amount of CO2e you're pumping into the atmosphere today simply doesn't work.
Moreover, tree planting schemes do not class as a 'permanent' offset. A permanent carbon offset means that the carbon is captured and fully guaranteed to never again be released into the atmosphere. Tree planting schemes are very vulnerable to reversals that would see the carbon being re-released into the atmosphere, due to wildfires or commercial clear-cutting.
Also, tree planting projects that don't plant native species or take local biodiversity into account can actually inflict further harm on the environment.
That being said, there are definitely carbon offsetting schemes that aren't centred around tree planting, which is well-documented in this Guardian article on the offsetting debate.
Critics of offsetting, however, maintain that regardless of what these schemes do, the basic premise of offsetting—i.e. paying money to 'negate' harmful behaviours—prevents people and companies from doing the real work of reducing their emissions.
What’s good about carbon offsetting?
Clearly, we harbour some healthy skepticism towards carbon offsetting. However, that's not to say carbon offsetting doesn't have a part to play in getting us to net zero! The problem thus far has been that carbon offsetting has played an outsized role in many companies' decarbonisation strategies. When done thoughtfully, it can have a positive impact.
First and foremost, according to standards set out by the Science Based Targets Initiative, carbon offsetting can only count towards a company's net zero target once they've reduced their carbon emissions by at least 90%. They can only offset the last 10% with permanent carbon removal and storage projects.
Therefore, valid, permanent offsetting projects can help businesses balance out their non-reducible residual emissions. This mechanism has the potential to financially support eco-businesses and projects that are working to combat the climate crisis and those most vulnerable to its affects.
This isn't to say that companies need to wait until they've hit all their long-term targets before they start paying into carbon removal projects! Plenty are doing so already, while also working to reduce their emissions.