RISK, PERIL AND POTENTIAL OF OFFSETTING
A blog post authored by Matthew, written Friday 4th March 2022
Offsetting CO2 emissions has become an increasingly popular and equally controversial way of reducing the potential damage of the climate crisis. It is seemingly a word employed by monied companies and rich individuals to continue what they have always done. A large component of the climate action community are suitably doubtful and sceptical of offsetting and the climate benefits many big companies are claiming. One of the largest oil firms in the world (it rhymes with ‘bell’) claims to be offsetting 2-3% of its total emissions, but these projects have led to an increased risk of deforestation, damage to indigenous communities and converting CO2 from a safely stored location (i.e. in the ground), to an unsafe one – the worlds forests and peatlands, which are increasingly under threat. The climate crisis is so great an issue, we need careful consideration and perhaps reconsideration of all potential solutions.
Common issues that are faced as a part of offsetting can be as diverse as corruption, improper use of ecology, cover for industrial forest farming as a source of alternative income, releasing far more CO2 than is actually stored, and destroying habitat that would otherwise be more suited to CO2 sequestration to plant trees. In the case of the last problem, you wouldn’t hire a plumber to cut your hair or do your taxes – so why are we paying investment banks and oil companies with no understanding of ecology & the complex interactions of biodiversity, soil and the atmosphere to store our emissions?
In the hierarchy of climate action, reduction is the first and most critical step towards a better future. As much as we would like it however, it is almost impossible to slash emissions completely. In which case, it is important to be able to compensate by absorbing emissions. This much isn’t rocket science! The carbon storage mechanisms are diverse, from more efficient ovens to new forests, and the carbon accounting of these goes from cautionary to unrealistic or impossible, to downright damaging.
What can individuals and businesses who want to do the best possible offsetting look for in schemes? The bewilderingly large number of carbon storage schemes can be critically analysed by looking at their level of permanence and transparency. By focussing on these two key parameters, it can be assured that the carbon removed from the atmosphere is real, effective and active in drawing CO2 from the atmosphere. For example, creating a new woodland or grassland habitat on low carbon content soils will draw additional carbon from the atmosphere. However, an existing woodland or with no threat to its existence will store carbon in the soil and plant matter, but this carbon is not considered additional, as it is pre-existing and was under no threat. Permanence assures the longevity of a carbon storage, an issue solved by legal commitments. Being able to add this ‘additional or ‘new’ carbon from the atmosphere (rather than using pre-existing habitats that would be doing it anyway) and it’s permanence are solved in many respects by increased levels of transparency. Open
and understandable information on accredited processes and locations involved, measurements of carbon stored by third party monitors, and sales all help to alleviate concerns of whether a scheme is effective or not. Transparency is key, and although difficult to achieve, technologies such as utilising the transparency of blockchain technology and accreditation systems by third parties such as universities help tremendously.
A separate but popular issue with offsetting is the potential of “consequence free” high emissions behaviours for those with wealth enough to offset them. A practice that shouldn’t but does exist. Offsetting schemes are there to be utilised to remove the last vestiges of CO2 emissions of a person or company – not as an excuse to carry on with business as usual. An organisation that has spent the time and effort to reduce its emissions footprint as much as it possibly can would and should utilise effective offsetting schemes to remove the last part of their operation that can’t be removed. The ability of firms to simply bypass this process and offset the entirety of their carbon footprint is regressive and sets a dangerous precedent whereby emissions are simply seen as a cost, not a necessary reduction for the potential survival of our species.
There are however, ways around this. Incentivisation by offsetting firms for their customers to actively reduce their internal operations emissions would greatly help with the reputability of many of these firms, as well as providing incentivisation packages for customers that showed their willingness to change for the cause. Another alternative is that some offsetting schemes demand demonstrable reductions from businesses wishing to purchase carbon before they are allowed to offset. Indeed, Carbon auditing practices are increasingly common for businesses. For individuals though, this becomes impossible and other measures such as logarithmic pricing by purchasing quantity should be used. For example, an everyday person that has reduced their emissions to 5 tons a year may only pay £10.00 per ton, but someone with a high flying lifestyle who emits 1,000 tons a year may have to pay £20.00 per ton. This not only balances out the great income imbalance of emissions (the wealthy disproportionately make up the majority of emissions), but also incentivises heavier polluters to seriously consider reducing their footprint before offsetting, due to the cost reduction. There will of course be offsetting firms that don’t utilise such a strict protocol, but by limiting the options of the heavier emitters, it forces them to either reduce emissions, or be stuck with less effective methods. This is by no means a perfect solution, but it acts as a start to the journey many of us are on to reach net-zero, and save our home.
Offsetting, when done right, does have a place within the network of climate crisis mitigation measures, but the lack of transparency, accountability, permanence to projects and facilitating a ‘business as usual’ approach leaves concerning gaps in the potential of this method. Perhaps in the future there will be alternatives that tick all of these boxes.