Welcome to our series of posts on the A-Z of zero waste!
An overview of everything that has been shared so far can be found here.
Many of us will have heard of "carbon offsetting" but might be unsure what it is. Even if you understand the principle, what does it mean in reality? Then there's the question of whether it's actually a good thing or even worth doing. So to make things a little easier, this article is going to be an overview of offsetting.
What is Carbon Offsetting?
Simply put, carbon offsetting is paying into schemes that take as much carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere as your lifestyle has put into the atmosphere. So if you produce one tonne of CO2, you can pay proportionally to have one tonne removed. It is a way of taking responsibility for your carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide is a green house gas that contributes to global warming and our current climate crisis. The more CO2 in the atmosphere, the more our climate is disrupted. There are many ways the money is then used, such as preventing deforestation, planting trees, funding renewable energy sources, providing clean cook stoves, funding clean water, and many more. Sometimes they refer to a carbon credit which is "a financial unit of measurement that represents the removal of one tonne (1,000 kg or 2,205 lbs.) of carbon from the atmosphere.", and this is what your money funds.
Does it actually work?
Well yes and no.
Yes - in theory, we know what takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and the things we can do to prevent more being released, so if we fund these things there is a beneficial effect on the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the CO2 doesn't even need to be removed at the same place it was released to have its benefits.
No - doing something like taking a flight releases CO2 into the atmosphere immediately, but offsetting is unlikely to be able to take that CO2 out of the atmosphere as quickly as it has been put in, especially if it's funding schemes to prevent CO2 being released as opposed to actively removing it from the atmosphere. So until that CO2 you released has been fully removed it is continuing to do damage.
However, just because offsetting isn't a perfect system, doesn't mean it isn't worth doing. Planting trees for example will not take the CO2 out of the atmosphere immediately, as the tree needs to grow over time, but it has other beneficial effects as well as CO2 sequestering, such as increasing biodiversity, reducing soil erosion, creating habitats, providing food and income for farmers etc.
I think of offsetting like apologising for your carbon emissions. If you hurt someone's feelings, apologising isn't going to make that hurt have magically not happened, but it is a good start to making things right, whilst also trying not to do that harmful thing again. In this analogy, trying not to do that action again would be trying to reduce your carbon footprint.
Offsetting is not a perfect solution by any means, but its definitely better than not doing it, like apologising. In general we all have a carbon footprint and should be trying to reduce it, but it is incredibly difficult to cut it completely and so we can use offsetting as a way to help the carbon emissions we cannot reduce. Also, the sooner we do offset the more beneficial it will be, so if you do have to take a flight, buy your carbon offset when you book to have the most impact.
Sounds good, but are there any negatives to offsetting?
There aren't really any negatives to properly carbon offsetting itself, but there are some issue that arise surrounding how it is viewed and practically done.
As we discussed, although valuable, offsetting is not perfect. So if people use offsetting as a way to justify carbon polluting behaviour without first attempting to reduce their carbon footprint then it could theoretically be a false solution to CO2 production. However as we discussed there are still benefits to offsetting methods so this may not be as much as a problem as thought, as would still have a net benefit. It would only really be a problem if it was used as a way to justify increasing someone's CO2 production, for example taking extra flights because you can offset them.
If the price to offset the emissions was included in the price of the polluting activity, e.g. in the cost of a plane ticket, it would disproportionately impact people who are less well off, making these activities even less accessible, whilst giving a free pass to anyone who can afford it. Even when not included in the price, it can leave the people who cannot afford to offset feeling guilt that richer people may not feel due to being able to offsett. Offsetting could be seen as a license to pollute, paying someone to reduce their emissions so you don't have to.
Carbon offsetting could lead to more "greenwashing" by unsustainable brands, who claim to be environmentally friendly by paying to offset their carbon footprint whilst doing nothing else to reduce their impact and continuing to drive over-consumption. Greenwashing is a way brands can appear to be environmentally friendly by focusing on one aspect they do that is sustainable whilst still remaining as an overall unsustainable brand. Carbon offsetting does allow highly profitable brands to appear "Eco" without any extra work, for a relatively small amount of money, and this kind of behaviour can be confusing to consumers who are trying to make better choices around what they buy and from whom. It can be difficult to distinguish between huge brands that claim to be "carbon neutral" because they have offset their carbon, and other brands who are "carbon neutral" because they actively reduced their carbon footprint and only offset the small amount they couldn't reduce.
There are also concerns that if the method of carbon offsetting is not done correctly, it can have other negative consequences, like if trees are planted without due thought or after care. "Tree planting is theoretically highly effective but some offset schemes have attracted criticism for displacing people or creating monocultures." - Guardian
The final concern is that the money being paid to offset carbon emissions is not actually being used to remove CO2, or is not removing enough, thereby creating a false sense of security. Thankfully carbon offsetting schemes are now becoming more regulated, providing more assurance that your money is having the intended effect. But it is still always worth researching a company before choosing to offset with them, as the best offsetting options will be transparent with where the money is going. There are also certifications you can look for, like QAS which is an independent auditor, to be sure your offsetting method is reliable.
So how can I offset?
Firstly you need to calculate your carbon footprint. There are many ways to do this and some carbon offsetting tools provide a calculator. For a general idea, without knowing specific numbers, I like the WWF Footprint calculator.
Then, there are many different offsetting options and it is worth looking into yourself. Some people might like to support schemes in their own countries, whilst others might prefer to support ones in developing countries. Some may not be happy to support methane-catching offsets if it is associated with animal agriculture, others may want their offsets to have other beneficial effects too.
Some of the many options for carbon offsetting:
- Carbon Footprint - Offers a range of carbon offsetting schemes to choose from, and has a carbon calculator to work out your carbon footprint.
- IATA (International Air Transport Association) - Represents 240 airlines (84% of total air traffic). Over 30 airlines have introduced an offset program which are also QAS accredited, meaning you can buy offsets directly from some airlines.
- Climate Stewards - a christian organisation providing carbon offsetting as a way to be a good steward.
- Cool Effect - a US scheme where all the carbon offsetting relates to methods in The Drawdown.
- Treedom Trees - An offsetting tool that allows you to plant trees to remove CO2, but can also be given as gifts to continue the benefit of carbon offsetting.
- RePurpose - not carbon offsetting, but a novel new scheme to offset your plastic use.
In summary, if you are able to, offsetting your carbon footprint is a good thing, especially if it is to make up for lifestyle choices there are not entirely necessary, but it doesn't change the need for you to personally reduce your carbon footprint. Reducing your impact should always come first. Even if you are not financially in the position to offset, do consider calculating your carbon footprint and seeing what you can do to reduce your CO2 emissions - changes that will act much faster than offsetting could.