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What’s with the heat on Carbon Offsetting?

Carbon offsets have seen a tremendous surge in popularity over the past few years, giving organisations a way to counterbalance the carbon emissions produced through their operations.

Blog 5 July 2023

These offsets often come with lofty promises of benefiting the planet and combating climate change through local and global environmental projects such as wind farms and reforestation. There has however been growing scrutiny and skepticism surrounding the use of offsets, including significant concerns about their impact and credibility.  Is this valid? In this post, we will explore some of the risks associated with carbon offsetting and offer key insights into using carbon offsets responsibly.

So, what is so bad about Carbon Offsetting?

Let's delve into some critical aspects that have recently been raised when considering carbon offsets as a sustainable pathway to achieve net zero.

1. The questionable credibility of offset projects:

A recent article by The Guardian shed light on concerning information about reforestation carbon offsets, a commonly used form of offsetting by major corporations. Shockingly, the report found that 90% of the forest carbon offsets approved by the leading certifier are considered largely worthless and may even exacerbate global heating. Such findings cast doubt on the reliability of offset projects and their actual environmental impact.

2. They may lack additionality verification:

Evaluating the additionality of offset projects – the volume of emissions reduction produced by a carbon-reducing activity, over and above what would be expected without that activity - is of utmost importance. Unfortunately, this verification process is complex and lacks transparency. Accurately measuring and verifying additionality poses challenges that raise doubts about the genuine environmental benefits of offset projects. Because of this, their actual contribution to addressing climate change comes into question.

3. They come with the risk of perpetuating inaction:

Carbon offsetting can inadvertently contribute to inequality and hinder direct efforts to reduce emissions. When organizations can simply purchase offsets without taking tangible actions to cut their own emissions, it fosters a sense of complacency and delays necessary emission reduction measures. This postponement of sustainable practices may widen the gap between organizations actively reducing emissions and those solely relying on offsets.

4. There is uncertainty around their actual environmental impact:

The effectiveness of carbon offset projects in delivering tangible environmental benefits remains uncertain. A study conducted by Stanford University highlighted a significant disparity between perceived and actual emission reductions achieved through offsets. Even when offsets appear to reduce emissions on paper, the study found that the actual reductions may be minimal or even non-existent. Such findings caution against relying solely on offsets to address climate change.

5. There could be displacement and localised consequences:

Offset projects, particularly those involving changes in land use or the establishment of renewable energy sources, can have unintended consequences. Instances of community displacement, loss of biodiversity, and social and environmental disruptions have been documented in various offset projects. These localised impacts raise ethical concerns and underscore the importance of thoroughly assessing the broader consequences of offset initiatives.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 where we explore the responsible use of carbon offsets.