The truth about carbon offsets
You’ve probably heard of carbon offsets in the context of taking a flight. Maybe you’ve taken a trip and you wanted to lessen your impact, so you looked into buying a carbon offset. For a relatively small sum, you found companies that will plant some trees for you, or support conservation in some area. This is most people’s experience with carbon offsets.
But the truth is, carbon offsets (and credits) are primarily a tool of large polluters, not individuals. This article is not here to flight-shame you. It’s here to illustrate how offsets are abused as part of net-zero pledges to project a good public image. Usually, they’re an accounting tool deployed to avoid making meaningful emissions reductions by the corporations most responsible for the climate crisis.
What does net-zero really mean?
Getting to net-zero carbon emissions is simple in theory. Emissions must equal drawdown, whether through natural processes like uptake in soil, the ocean, or some other means.
As part of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, nations agreed to lower their emissions to net-zero. China, the world’s largest emitter, has pledged to reach net-zero by 2060. The UK passed a law in 2019 requiring net-zero emissions by 2050. Several US states, like California, have made similar pledges.
As for large corporate emitters, Nestle, Amazon, and even oil giant BP, which ranked 6th on a list of 20 companies responsible for a third of global emissions in recent history, have all made pledges to reach net-zero emissions. This all sounds good, right?
The science is clear: We need to dramatically reduce emissions to get to true net-zero globally. But economic growth is still largely tied to increasing emissions. Offsets provide a seductive proposition: Keep making money as usual, burning fossil fuels for energy, but pay someone else to take the emissions off your balance sheet. This is why the word “offset” does a lot of heavy lifting when you look at most corporate net-zero pledges in detail. Big polluters can maintain a facade of progress without making substantive changes.
Paying for the right to do wrong
Carbon offsets are a voluntary penance mediated by an organization that promises to promote good elsewhere to make up for climate vice, much like indulgences paid to the church before the reformation. Essentially it’s paying for the right to do wrong.
Offset schemes may put money into biological carbon sinks like planting trees in the Philippines, or energy projects where energy-efficient cooking stoves are installed in homes in Ghana. These not only have environmental benefits but also societal benefits. Sounds great, right? What could be wrong with that?
In principle, nothing. We can’t say with certainty that all offsets are bad, but we can say with certainty that not all offsets are good. In general, the execution of the idea, and the motivations behind it, have taken what could be a useful tool and used it almost exclusively as a quick, easy and cheap way to launder the reputations of big polluters.
So why can’t you simply pollute in place A and suck up those emissions in place B?
Lack of accountability
First and foremost, offset markets suffer from a profound lack of standardization and transparency. If you’re paying someone to remove carbon from the atmosphere, you need some way to verify offsetting schemes are actually making good on that promise. You can plant lots of trees, but they can be cut down, or burned in a wildfire, releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere. CO2 can remain in the atmosphere anywhere between 300 and 1000 years, which means effective carbon sequestration would need to be essentially permanent to really work.
Taking emissions off the books in your company’s annual investor report doesn’t necessarily stop them from trapping heat. It’s been well over a decade since offsets have become widely used in the public yet no such regulatory framework to ensure their efficacy has emerged. You’d think that would be a pressing matter for the companies and countries who are the main offset buyers if they believed the future of human civilization and the rest of the living world truly hung in the balance, and not just their public image.
The entire premise behind most offset schemes is that it’s funding projects that wouldn’t have happened without the offsets. This is called additionality, because it’s supposed to be providing additional benefit. How do you know the wind farm your offset funded, for example, wouldn’t have been built without it? How do you know the project isn’t being built because it makes good business sense? Or was it a response to public support for climate action? This ProPublica feature points to a report concluding that almost all offset projects failed the additionality standard, finding, “75% of the credits issued were unlikely to represent real reductions, and that if countries had cut pollution on-site instead of relying on offsets, global CO₂ emissions would have been 600 million tons lower.”
The dark side of offsets
If all this wasn’t bad enough, lack of accountability has also led to horrifying reports of carbon offsets schemes providing monetary incentive for atrocities, like forced evictions of indigenous peoples in places like Kenya and elsewhere in the name of land conservation. In no way is this climate justice. Offset schemes have a troubling history of ignoring or making life significantly worse for the people on the frontlines of the climate emergency, mainly because offset buyers (and sellers) represent the rich.
The scale of the problem
Even if we could guarantee all carbon offsetting schemes were both just and effective, there’s a bigger problem at the heart of offsets: scale. There are only so many trees you can plant, or so much land to re-wild, only so many farms that can switch to regenerative agriculture, only so many direct air capture facilities you can build to suck carbon out of the air. It’s practically impossible to reach net-zero emissions by trying to remove carbon from the atmosphere while continuing to emit at current levels. And it’s even harder if emissions continue to rise. For example, oil major Shell plans to deploy more nature-based carbon offsets, derived from forestry and soil stewardship projects, than the entire global market can currently supply.
Offsets offer a false hope of a climate solution. As the Nature editorial board wrote: “It is not hard to make pledges towards net zero — especially when the nations and organizations involved can themselves set the parameters for that pledge. But a pledge that doesn’t include meaningful reductions — as opposed to more offsets — increases the risk that catastrophic climate change will become unavoidable.”
The climate crisis is everyone’s responsibility. We need massive, coordinated, and immediate action to entirely transition the global economy from fossil fuels. That means every government, every company, and every individual has a role to play.
What’s more important than looking to carbon offsets is holding governments and businesses to account. Be wary of the word “offsets” when politicians or corporations throw it around. Remember that “net-zero” is not zero, and how we get there matters.
Other things you can do: Download the Earth Hero Mobile App for lots of ways to take control over your carbon footprint and live a more connected lifestyle with climate in mind. The power of your example can help others realize they can make changes in their lives too.
You can also join an environmental organization that resonates with you. Perhaps this is Climate Ad Project. Here are some others. Make donations part of your budget and support the organization(s) you think are doing the most good. And if you can’t give money, try volunteering. You meet new people and do good things.
Read, engage with, and support reliable media that covers climate issues.
Follow the science and scientists.
Vote – always vote – for the candidate who is most literate on climate and understands the tremendous scale of the issue while offering to do the most to address it. And if you think you can make a difference in office, run.
Be active on the issue of climate in any way that feels right to you. It’s not up to others to define what being an activist means. Because we need a billion climate activists.