Carbon offsetting is a controversial topic; on the one hand, it seems to offer workable solutions to the climate crisis, allowing people to use their services and reduce carbon emissions; on the other hand, it can be used as a gateway to greenwashing and false advertising. The reality lies somewhere in the middle; carbon offsetting has some merit when coupled with Net Zero efforts.
Key Takeaways: Carbon Offsetting
What is Carbon Offsetting?
Carbon offsetting is a simple concept, CO2 produced by industry, transport, and markets goes into the atmosphere and contributes to the greenhouse effect, but this carbon can be reabsorbed back into the earth with additional trees planted in forests, investments in renewable energy, and supporting people in the Global South to develop sustainable communities. It’s quite a nice idea.
The trouble is carbon offsetting is difficult to measure and often ineffective; at the same time, it makes individuals and businesses feel as though they are doing something to support Net Zero efforts when the opposite could be the case. Research by ProPublica has shown that many of the additional trees planted for carbon offsetting were planned to be planted in forests anyway.
Tree Planting is Inefficient
Many of the world's major carbon-heavy brands, such as Shell, BP, and EasyJet, passionately support carbon offsetting programs in the forests of Brazil. That’s not surprising since carbon offsetting allows them to continue their business-as-usual model sustaining profits by selling products to ethically-minded consumers. Tree planting can reduce carbon, but only a fraction.
The earth’s forests are critical to maintaining the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but planting trees to offset carbon is not the efficient machine the world needs to slash carbon emissions and reach Net Zero targets. A newly-planted tree can take up to twenty years to absorb the amount of carbon promised in the carbon offsetting programs people buy.
Issues With Climate Justice
Climate justice - or climate injustice - is the dynamic between countries with high carbon emissions and countries affected by climate change. Climate justice can take other forms, too; it’s estimated that people born today will have to emit eight times less carbon than their grandparents to stay with the 1.5-degree target. Climate justice is an important consideration.
It is easier, cheaper, and more effective for big-name brands to set up carbon-offsetting programs in the Global South, but this comes at the expense of the local communities who might use the land to serve their own needs. These carbon offsetting initiatives can compromise the rights of indigenous people and depose them of their ancestral land in the worst cases.
Carbon Offsetting and PR
Carbon offsetting is excellent PR; it allows companies to present an ethical front and continue with business as usual. At the same time, carbon offsetting gives consumers peace of mind when transacting with companies since they get a service and make a green contribution. While it’s not completely ineffective, decisive action is needed to reduce carbon emissions directly.
It is now time for companies to move on from carbon offsetting arrangements in favour of carbon-reduction trajectories. The upside is that these efforts are also good for PR in the modern world. Businesses need to define low emissions thresholds and create workable decarbonisation strategies, with continued support for reforesting and rewilding communities.
Alternatives to Carbon Offsetting
When it comes to the climate emergency, every little count, even the small efforts people make on a daily basis to reduce carbon emissions, make a difference. There’s no doubt that carbon offsetting has a part to play, but consumers need to be aware of the dangers and alternatives.
If you are unsure about the green credentials of a company, you can always pursue your own offsetting agenda and source a transparent and responsible company or charity to invest in. In short, it’s always better to reduce personal carbon than to hand responsibility to the big brands.
Some Final Thoughts
Whether you are a business or an individual, you need to think about your carbon footprint and the impact your lifestyle is having. Small changes can make a big difference to your personal carbon emissions on the global journey to Net Zero in 2050. Find out more about how to make your business Net Zero by attending a Net Zero workshop or partnering with a climate mentor.
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