Carbon offsetting is based on calculating how much CO2 is emitted by a certain activity that you are doing, and then funding a project designed to reduce carbon emissions by the same amount elsewhere, such as renewable energy or forestry. This is supposed to “neutralise” the effect of your emissions.
Carbon offsetting is deeply controversial on a number of levels. While we don’t endorse it, this feature deals with the best way to offset if you do want to do it.
We recommend offsetting at the level of individual projects (rather than just giving to a company’s whole portfolio) because this is the level at which there is most information available. Accordingly, most of this feature deals with how best to choose such a project. In the process it also looks at criticisms of specific types of offsets, and of the whole concept.
Recommended offset types – renewables
There is a strong argument that renewables are the best form of official offset, as they are addressing the central structural issue that is causing climate change: our reliance on using fossil fuels for energy.
As a rule of thumb, it is better to support wind and solar projects than any form of biomass (including biogas). Not only is biomass potential limited as growing fuel takes up so much land, but also, while biomass can do good, it can also do enormous harm if not executed well.
One example of the danger is demonstrated by journalist Heather Rogers, who visited a biomass power plant in India and found that trees were being chopped down and sold to the plant, which was designed to run on agricultural wastes. The project was Gold Standard-certified (see below).
Recommended offset types – DIY offsets
Another option worth considering is doing ‘DIY offsetting’ – giving to projects that are not official offsets, but have a good chance of cutting emissions. Outside the world of quantifiable short-term emissions cuts, you can give to projects that may be able to create more transformational change, such as political and educational projects.
The 2008 UK Climate Act, for example, wouldn’t have happened without a major campaigning effort from Friends of the Earth, and all such things take resources. You could also give to charities, such as the Red Cross, that are dealing with the effects of climate change, such as those helping the victims of hurricanes and floods.
These projects won’t have received the benefit of certification (see below), and there is a debate to be had about whether or not giving to projects that do not promise to cut a quantifiable amount of carbon should still be called offsetting. However, there are, nonetheless, good reasons to adopt this approach.
Official offsets lack a systematic approach
Official offsetting is all about doing the thing that gives you a cheap, easy quantifiable win. And – you might ask – why not? Its cheerleaders are fond of saying “the atmosphere doesn’t care where you make emissions cuts”.
But the thing is that over time, the atmosphere does care (metaphorically speaking), just as your body cares whether you lose weight through starving yourself or through a healthy diet and exercise. Because some cuts are sustainable, and some are not. If you are purely interested in easy cuts you can make right now, you may well overlook the deeper structural issues needed to sustain them or make more profound cuts in the longer term.
The inefficiency of official offsets
A calculation of the cost of offsetting with Certified Emissions Reductions (see below) calculated that on average, only about 30% of the money makes it to actual projects, with the rest being taken by verification costs, overheads, and project developers’ profits.
The Clean Development Mechanism is notoriously bureaucratic, so this may not be representative of the voluntary market. However, nearly all carbon offsetting is done by for-profit companies, not charities. And all of the carbon counting, trustworthy or not, inevitably comes at a price.
If you do DIY offsetting, you can choose to give to a conventional charity, and possibly circumnavigate a lot of the bureaucracy of the official offset market.
Recommended offsets – energy efficiency
Energy efficiency projects sound like promising candidates for ethical offsets, as many of them would be a good thing irrespective of the climate. For example, one of the main types is improving the efficiency of cooking stoves in poorer countries, where indoor air pollution from open fires and smoky stoves is responsible for about four million deaths per year.
However, there are a couple of reasons for concern about energy efficiency offsets. The first is that energy efficiency can, theoretically, be subject to major rebound effects. When you make something more efficient, people save money or resources, which they can then spend on other things that use energy.
The rebound effect is a hard thing to prove, but there is a lot of data that is suggestive of it. For example, one academic paper estimated that between about 50% to 60% of the potential energy saving from German vehicle efficiency improvements between 1997 and 2005 was lost to increased driving. Furthermore, the ‘rebound’ is likely to be stronger in poorer countries, where people’s use of energy across many different areas is constrained by their resources.
The second concern about energy efficiency offsets is about justice. Although these projects are marketed as benefiting local people, it is not always straightforward to determine what is a ‘benefit’ and what isn’t. Improving cooking stoves may improve respiratory health, but it can also be quite disruptive of people’s lives, as social activities are often based around collecting wood and traditional cooking methods.
That doesn’t mean that we should decide not to do it, but it does raise the question: should the priority in deciding how such projects are implemented be getting people who are poorer than us to reduce their emissions on our behalf, or should it be fulfilling their actual needs? Should it really be their job to reduce their emissions so we don’t have to reduce ours?
Non-recommended offset types
To many people, carbon offsetting means planting trees. However, tree planting is actually now relatively uncommon. This is partly because it has attracted a huge amount of criticism.
The key criticism is to do with permanence. CO2 has a long lifetime in the atmosphere, so when you release carbon dioxide from fossil fuels it is more or less going to stay there permanently. But trees are generally just temporary stores of carbon. They absorb CO2 slowly until they reach their maximum size, and then they sit there. But if you want them to continue to hold your carbon for you, you have to then ensure that they remain there – maybe for centuries. At a time of growing pressure on land resources, that is a big ask.
There have also been a number of major tree-planting offset scandals in which local people were evicted from the land to make way for the trees, or the trees were allowed to die almost immediately after planting, or inappropriate species were used that damaged native forests. One particularly egregious example was a 2011 project in Uganda in which around 20,000 people were violently evicted to make way for tree plantations being planted as offsets by the London-based New Forests Company. This project was a ‘compliance’ rather than ‘voluntary’ offset project (see box on CERs).
The new type of forestry offsets – REDD
Because tree planting has been so discredited, offsets that attempt to protect existing forests have become more popular instead (called REDD projects – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation).