Carbon Offsetting: magic solution or magic trick?

Inês Lagoutte
Dec 14, 2019 · 5 min read
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Left: Julius Drost; Right: Sharon McCutcheon

Scientists have calculated that, to keep our planet safe, atmospheric CO2 levels should not pass 350 ppm. This May, we exceeded 415 ppm for the first time in human history. This means that not only do we have to stop emitting greenhouse gases, but also find a way to “pull them out” of the atmosphere.

The pressure is on. And in the race to be carbon neutral, there is one particular strategy that has been steeply rising in the popularity staircase: carbon offsetting.

Carbon what?

Carbon offsetting is about compensating the carbon you emit through a certain activity, by preventing the same amount of pollution from happening somewhere else. How? By investing in renewable energy or planting trees projects (or ones that have the purpose of preventing or reducing carbon emissions). In theory, for every tonne of CO2 you emit, you prevent or remove a tonne of CO2, neutralising your effects.

More and more companies are claiming that they will become carbon neutral by offsetting their emissions: Disney, Microsoft, Lyft, Apple and Sony, to name a few. In aviation, many airlines now give customers the option to offset the carbon emissions from their flights by paying extra for their ticket.

That seems amazing! Yes, in theory. What might pass as simple math, has quite a lot more to it.

Let’s see how a carbon offsetting scheme works.

1. You go to a website like Myclimate and introduce the activity you want to offset: a flight, a car ride, an event or even your life footprint.

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2. It calculates the amount of carbon that activity produces.

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3. Then, gives you the amount of money you have to pay to offset your emissions. That amount corresponds to a donation to projects like providing more efficient cook stoves to women in Kenya, or helping farmers in Nicaragua with reforestation.

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You pay, and that’s it! Your sin is cleared. It’s not so hard to be carbon neutral after all!

Sarcastic comments aside, the first issue comes from the way they calculate your emissions. Different platforms give you different amounts of CO2 for the same activity. And I know we don’t expect it to be an exact science, but the amounts vary widely. When comparing a flight from London to NY between Myclimate and Atmosfair, the variation is almost 90%.

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But ok, let’s assume that’s not that important, because in the end you are still contributing to at least minimising carbon emissions. Well, that leads me to the second problem:

The assumption that donating to such projects will actually reduce CO2 emissions. Here, 2 things have to be taken into account.

1. Some projects are not effective at all. For example, many “planting trees” projects end up having more negative impacts, because they promote monocultures, or contribute to the dislocation of local populations.

This means that when companies claim to be carbon neutral, they are committing the mathematical crime of assuming that subtracting potential reductions to effective emissions equals zero. It would be like your friend paying you back the $1m you loaned him with a lottery ticket.

2. Even if the projects are effective, nothing guarantees you that the donations lead to additional carbon savings from the ones that would have happened anyway. In fact, a study has shown that 85% of the projects covered in the analysis have a low likelihood that emission reductions are additional and are not over-estimated.

Ok. BUT even if the impact is not certain, at least it’s still better than not doing anything!

Yes and no.

Yes, of course that if the options are: 1. to have an airline company polluting like crazy or 2. to have an airline company polluting like crazy and offsetting; the second option is better in terms of aggregated output.

UNLESS the act of offsetting serves as a disincentive to work on more efficient, cleaner technologies and processes from the airline. And this is one of the biggest criticism carbon offsetting gets.

Does it validate the environmentally unfriendly habits? Does it create an “everything is fine, we are doing all we can” perception? Is it just greenwashing?

Using carbon offsetting as the prime means of “reducing” your emissions and not as a last resource can be dangerous.

Take Heathrow airport. It plans to use offsets to make it “carbon neutral” by 2030 and to be “zero-carbon” by 2050, even though: 1. it plans to expand with a third runway that will be able to take an extra 265,000 flights a year; 2. it will build one of the world’s largest car parks and directly increase global emissions by millions of tonnes of CO2.

Now, you might be asking youself: “should we or should we not offset after all?”. Offsetting should be done only as a complement to a genuine and effective emissions reduction strategy.

What does it mean for me?

That first, you should analyse your life and how it’s contributing to carbon emissions, inform yourself. We recommend the Gold Standard website. There you can calculate your carbon footprint and find information on what actions you can take to reduce it.

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Then, (and only then) if you do choose to offset some habit you cannot be changing yet, do it through a certified, approved offsetting scheme. Learn more about certification here.

Written by Inês Lagoutte

Youth for Global Goals

Youth 4 Global Goals (Youth4GG)is the SDG Initiative of…

Inês Lagoutte

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In a process of trial and error to find how I can best contribute to the world. Connect with me at:

Youth for Global Goals

Youth 4 Global Goals (Youth4GG)is the SDG Initiative of AIESEC that aims to mobilize 1.8 Billion youth towards the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. We do this by raising awareness about the SDGs, engaging youth and allowing them to take action.

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