Are carbon offsetting schemes a good idea?

In the clamour to be seen as environmentally responsible, it’s becoming increasingly common for companies and organisations to market themselves as ‘carbon neutral’.

The claim is that, overall, their activities don’t increase the amount of carbon being released into our atmosphere and therefore do not contribute to climate change.

Dig a little deeper and you will often find that this carbon neutrality is achieved by investing in projects that claim to remove an amount of carbon from the atmosphere, equivalent to what is being produced by a company’s or organisation’s operations. They’re effectively a carbon trading system.

If you are buying a service that is known to contribute to global warming (such as a flight) airlines will often offer you the chance to reduce your potential feeling of guilt by making an extra payment to their carbon offsetting scheme.

In this blog we ask if this is something you should consider and whether these schemes fulfil their promises?

carbon offsetting - flights - brighton hove energy service co-operative
Some airlines offer customers the option of off-setting the carbon emissions of their flight for a small additional fee. Whilst it is good to see airlines acknowledging the environmental damage caused by their operations, in may cases carbon-offsetting schemes are little more than a marketing ploy to deflect criticism of a company's carbon-intensive activities. Photo: Ross Parmly on UnSplash

What sort of projects are used in carbon offsetting schemes?

The most common offset schemes involve restoring or planting forests and woodlands.  Looking after ecosystems of all kinds is vital for climate stability but there is evidence that many offset projects don’t reach their carbon capture goals.

Bloomberg Green, a global leader in business data and insight, reported on carbon offsets in August 2020. It concluded that many bodies certifying carbon offset schemes cut corners, leading to expected carbon savings not being achieved.

In reality, tree planting isn’t a substitute for directly reducing carbon emissions. A newly planted tree can take around 20 years to capture the amount of carbon promised by a carbon offset scheme and some never reach their carbon capture potential.

Trees are susceptible to drought, fire and disease. If a tree dies, most of the carbon trapped in it returns to the atmosphere. It’s far better to leave the carbon that is stored in fossil fuels  like coal, oil and gas in the ground and to invest instead in alternative forms of clean energy.

There is also the issue of climate justice. It’s cheaper to set up offsetting projects in the global South but this may disadvantage indigenous people or use land that would be better employed to meet the needs of local communities.

Bloomberg quote the example of Walt Disney Co which ploughed millions of dollars into reforesting the Alto Mayo forest in Peru in order to offset the carbon emissions from its cruise ship business. However, disputes between the Peruvian government and local farmers over land rights have raised serious ethical concerns.

Some carbon-offsetting schemes involving forest protection or tree planting can encroach on the traditional lands of indigineous people, leading to concerns about social justice and infringement of freedoms. Photo: Zui Hoang on UnSplash

How should organisations be responding?

It may surprise some people to discover that one of the largest contributors to global warming is the fashion industry. Its greenhouse gas emissions exceed both aviation and shipping.

With this in mind, Stand.Earth a North American campaigning organisation published a roadmap setting out how the fashion industry should tackle its contribution to climate change. Suggested priorities include:

  • A rapid transition to powering factories with renewable energy
  • Eliminating the use of oil based fabrics like polyester
  • Encouraging a decarbonisation strategy for shipping

Stand.Earth recommends that the fashion industry avoids ‘greenwashing’ initiatives like buying renewable energy credits and investing in carbon offsetting schemes.

The priority should be to cut carbon emissions as much as possible at source. Protecting forests and restoring ecosystems is crucial for our climate but we should be doing that as well as cutting emissions directly, not instead of it.

Offset schemes distract from real climate change solutions and allow the big polluters like oil companies, the fashion industry, airlines and shipping to continue with climate damaging behaviours while appearing to be responsible. 

Offset schemes should be reserved for counteracting those emissions that truly cannot be avoided at present.

What should I be considering as an individual?

Just like organisations and businesses, our first priority as individual consumers should be to avoid activities, goods and services that are significant greenhouse gas polluters. 

Is there an alternative to that flight I’m considering?

Do I really need to take a cruise for my annual holiday?

And could my next pair of trousers be made from a sustainable material like bamboo rather than a synthetic alternative?

What pressure can I put on the organisations seeking my custom that will steer them towards radically overhauling their business plans to reduce their carbon footprint at source?

If you really have no alternative but to buy from a company that uses offsetting or offers you the option to offset your individual carbon contributions, do some research and ask questions about the offsetting projects being used.

Do the projects have strong monitoring and verification processes in place to ensure they deliver on their carbon absorption promises?

solar panel array brighton road baptist church
In many cases carbon-offsetting schemes do not achieve the goals they promise and are little more than a greenwashing exercise by polluting companies. Developing solutions which reduce carbon emissions at the source is the most effective way to tackle climate change. Photo: BHESCo

Rather than buying the offered offsetting options, you might want to consider investing in local, community based, clean energy projects like those developed by BHESCo.

We use investment from our co-operative members to deliver measurable carbon reduction benefits that you can track and read about on our website or see first hand around the Sussex area.

By becoming a member of our energy co-operative you’ll be helping our local community to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions at the source.

On top of that, BHESCo offer an attractive financial return on shareholder investments, which is something you won’t get from a carbon-offsetting scheme.

Follow the link below to discover more of the benefits of beomcing a shareholder member of our award-winning community energy co-operative.

Alternatively (or additionally) you may wish to make an instant impact on your own carbon footprint by switching to a 100% renewable energy supplier for your home or business.