The Truth About… Carbon Offsets

Have you ever bought a ticket for an event and the organisers tell you that they’ve planted a tree on your behalf? This is an example of a carbon offset, a reduction in greenhouse gases to make up for emissions made somewhere else.

Carbon offsets are becoming more and more popular as companies explore ways to become more sustainable, but it’s important to know what exactly they are and how to spot when a company is abusing them. 

girl holding a small plant
Source: Unsplash

What Are Carbon Offsets?

As mentioned, a carbon offset is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in order to compensate for emissions made somewhere else. Offsets are measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent. One tonne of carbon offset represents the reduction of one tonne of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases. It essentially puts a price on carbon. 

Carbon offset schemes allow individuals and companies to invest in environmental projects around the world to balance out their own carbon footprints. These schemes are usually set up in developing countries and could involve rolling out clean technologies, planting trees or buying carbon credits from an emissions trading scheme, which is like a marketplace for carbon emissions. 

Over the past few years, carbon offsetting has become more popular, but it has also developed a somewhat controversial reputation. 

Source: Unsplash

Does Carbon Offsetting Work?

It’s difficult to tell. Some environmentalists believe that carbon offsets are a form of greenwashing, where polluters are able to purchase carbon credits to lessen the negative environmental impacts of their activities, allowing them to carry on as normal while claiming to be benefiting the environment. However, the price of these credits are often too low to truly offset the environmental damage being done and are simply “get-out-of-jail-free cards.” There’s also a lot of unknown factors behind some carbon offsetting schemes, as there may be different parts of it working in different countries, confusing efforts to track all parts of it.

However, in the fight against climate change, we need all the weapons that are available to us. Governments need to encourage the transition from fossil fuels to renewables and companies who emit large amounts of greenhouse gases need to be held accountable for their actions.

There are companies using carbon offsetting schemes that are removing doubts of their positive impact, like Hong Kong-based Ecomatcher, a certified B Corp that plants trees and forests transparently around the world, including The Philippines, Uganda, Guatemala, Peru and Kenya.

carbon offsets in a forest
Source: Unsplash

How Do You Spot a Good Carbon Offset?

Here are some things to look out for in a carbon offset:

  • The exchange must be quantifiable – first, a company must know exactly how many emissions they need to offset.
  • A project must have “additionality” – that is, the project would not have happened without the offsets. For example, a forest wouldn’t have been planted without the investment. 
  • There must be no carbon leakage – investors must be sure that the project doesn’t cause other problems that create more greenhouse gas emissions. For example, say that you have a manufacturing business in Hong Kong and you decide to invest in an ecological park in Uganda to save an endangered ecosystem. However, the establishment of that park results in the displacement of a local lumber business that later clears a large area of jungle in another part of the country instead. This carbon reduction is then nullified by the migration of carbon emissions. 
  • The offsets must be permanent – what good is it if the forest you invest in ends up being cleared five years from now? 
  • There must be third-party oversight and certification – a carbon offset scheme can be verified by third-party organisations, like Gold Standard, Terrapass and Carbon Neutral Company. 

As mentioned above, carbon offsets aren’t perfect and should only really be used once a company has done all it can to reduce emissions in other ways. However, in the fight against climate change, we need all the tools available in our arsenal.

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