Why offsetting isn’t the answer we think it is

Small steps…

  • Offsetting via a reputable organisation is better than nothing, but mustn’t impede real emissions REDUCTIONS.
  • Be consistent: if you recognise the need to offset your flying, consider offsetting your other carbon-based activities as well, from driving to heating your home. That way the cost (and raised awareness) will only help encourage the necessary REDUCTIONS.
  • Challenge the myth that offsetting allows us to continue ‘business as usual’.
Offsetting – the LAST part of the ‘avoid, reduce, offset’ strategy.
(Photo by Eva Darron)

I should’ve known it was too good to be true.

Feeling guilty about dragging two tonnes of petrol-fuelled SUV just a few miles down the road to meet the school bus, I paid £15 which, according to a carbon calculator, was enough to make my car carbon neutral for a whole twelve months. This year and last, I paid £150 to offset the use of our oil boiler. And in December, determined to make it to a best friend’s wedding, I paid £40 to offset the hell out of a return flight to Washington. Again and again, I’ve fallen for the hoax of offsetting.

And I’m not alone. Now that public awareness is reaching the point where individuals, businesses, industries, even entire countries want to be seen taking active steps to mitigate climate change, voluntary offsetting is becoming increasingly popular, and it’s easy to see why. The theory is logical and appealing: by calculating the emissions of any given activity and funding a project to remove an identical amount of CO2 from the atmosphere, our original activity becomes ‘climate neutral’. We can then continue with our carbon-emitting activity to our heart’s content, guilt-free, cocooned in our own self-righteousness.

That’s the theory behind offsetting. In practice, though, it’s riddled with problems. (Wouldn’t it be nice to pretend that’s why, when it comes to flying, only 1% of us even bothers?) In order to have the desired effect, each and every offsetting project must be: 1) additional, 2) leak-free, 3) quantifiable, and 4) permanent. Here’s what that means, and why they’re not:

1. Additional

The offsetting project has to be entirely surplus to what would have happened anyway. Obviously that’s pretty tough to prove without a crystal ball, but a study for the European Commission into UN-sanctioned offset projects did their best anyway and found that 75% of offsetting projects were unlikely to be additional; at best, only 2% were classed as ‘highly likely’ to be additional. Clearly some schemes have a worse chance of ‘additionality’ than others: an energy project, for example, would – given the ever-growing demand for power – likely happen anyway. But the truth is that many typical offset projects have to happen anyway, simply because they’re necessary under the Paris Treaty.

2. Leak-free

The project mustn’t just shift emissions elsewhere. Take those schemes claiming to prevent logging: it’s not easy to identify particular forest areas at risk. And how do you know that your protection for that forest won’t just lead to a different one being felled? Another version of this problem is rich countries paying for poorer countries to go carbon neutral; even if every developing nation on the planet became carbon-free, it wouldn’t be enough for us to meet our Paris Treaty requirements – not without us wealthy Westerners actually reducing our own emissions.

3. Quantifiable

The same European Commission report showed that many projects (eg. those offering more efficient cooking stoves to developing countries) exaggerate their emissions savings. Nor does one tonne of carbon saved while cooking dinner nullify one tonne of carbon released from a plane at high altitude, not with all the accompanying damage of aviation beyond the mere quantity of carbon emissions. Plus, since the impacts of CO2 in the atmosphere are cumulative, my offset would have to have an immediate and equivalent effect on the same day as my carbon emissions, not over a year or two (when, for example, my newly-planted sapling has grown, or that African family has served up a few hundred dinners on their new stove).

4. Permanent

The benefits of any offsetting project would have to be permanent. But planting a tree (the most popular option) is no guarantee that it won’t burn down, be attacked by pests, or cut down to make space for a cattle farm or housing development. My emitted CO2 will hang around for centuries; it’s patently impossible to claim that the results of my offsetting efforts will last as long.

But let’s imagine we find a scheme that is additional, identifiable, quantifiable and permanent. Then what’s the problem? Unfortunately, as the studies confirm, the mere promise of offsetting can undermine determination to actually reduce emissions – as we must. By offering an easy alternative, it provides a false sense of security, a means of buying a clean conscience as we continue with ‘business as usual’. Which I guess is why, despite my best intentions, I still run an oil boiler and drive an SUV.

Academics suggest that in the worst case scenario, the promise of [offsetting] schemes alone could lead to an additional catastrophic 1.4º of warming.

Friends of the Earth, Does Carbon Offsetting Work?

Offsetting has been compared to the Church’s selling of indulgences, in that it allows the most carbon-heavy individuals and nations to avoid real change, propping up a carbon-intensive world rather than using market forces to incentivise change. If you imagine that those indulgences went to feed the poor, I’d agree with the comparison. Because while offsetting can’t neutralise the harm of our own emissions, with the accreditation process that judges the worthiness of each project improving all the time, it’s better than nothing.

So until I can afford to replace our oil boiler with a heat pump or trade in my SUV for an EV, I’m going to stick with it – but I’m not going to kid myself that it relieves me of my responsibility to REDUCE my emissions. We all have to cut emissions, as much and as fast as we can, as individuals, as societies and as nations. That means taking responsibility for our actions, not shunting their effects elsewhere. And that means recognising that life has to change. Today.

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