Does carbon offsetting actually work?

Published by Georgia Crump on

What is carbon offsetting and does carbon offsetting actually work?

Carbon offsetting: “a licence to pollute”?

As more people look for ways to reduce their carbon emissions, the demand for carbon offsetting is increasing. However some people are sceptical about it’s effectiveness in fighting climate change. Does carbon offsetting actually work? Or is it just a “licence to pollute” – an excuse to avoid changing our lifestyles?

What does carbon offsetting mean? 

Carbon offsetting is a way in which individuals and organisations can take full responsibility for their carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint is the total emissions that result from all activities in your daily life. Put simply, carbon offsetting means compensating every tonne of carbon you emit by ensuring there is one less in the atmosphere. 

Unlike other kinds of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions are global. Since one unit of CO2 has the same climate impact wherever it is emitted, the benefit is the same wherever it is reduced or avoided too. 

Carbon offsetting is achieved by buying credits from carbon reduction projects. These projects can take a variety of forms. For example, planting trees, renewable energy, and making processes more energy efficient will all result in less CO2 emissions. 

Carbon offset criticism

More and more companies are announcing their carbon neutral intentions in an effort to improve their environmental impact. However, many people are critical of this.  

Here are some of the common criticisms we hear about carbon offsetting: 

“Carbon offsetting gives rich people an excuse not to change their carbon intense lifestyles”.

Environmental organizations like Greenpeace often make the argument that carbon offsetting gives people an excuse not to change their lifestyle. 

Carbon offsetting should always be in conjunction with making positive changes to our lifestyles to reduce our carbon footprint. Only once you have minimised your carbon emissions as much as possible should you compensate the rest with carbon offsets. 

However, let’s not forget that carbon offsetting is an investment in emissions reductions to drive the transition to a low carbon economy. Currently, clean energy and efficiency progress is not happening quick enough to stop temperature rises alone.  In order to meet global targets of limiting temperature rises to 2C, set by the Paris Agreement, carbon offsetting is absolutely necessary. 

What’s more, remember that most people are currently not carbon offsetting at all, nor are they changing their lifestyles. Carbon offsetting is a positive step towards a greener lifestyle. Donating to carbon offsets shows a desire to protect the environment and prevent climate change. 

“How can you prove that carbon offsetting projects are actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere?” 

The second concern that people have around carbon offsetting is that the projects don’t actually deliver what they promise to. Knowing that your money is used correctly and efficiently is vital. 

The best way to guarantee this is to make sure the project you’re donating to is certified by an independent carbon reduction standard, such as Gold Standard or Verified Carbon Standard. These organisations ensure that projects are actually reducing CO2 emissions, as well as supporting sustainable development. 

One thing these standards will check is “additionality”. This means that a project can prove CO2 emissions would not have been reduced without their intervention. 

In order to carbon offset successfully, it is important to check that the project you are supporting has been independently verified.  Companies such as Treepoints offer this kind of support to simplify things for you. 

When should you offset your carbon footprint? 

Carbon offsetting should only ever be a last resort. Before you even consider offsetting you should make sure you have done everything you can to reduce your carbon footprint. This includes things like avoiding flying, eating less meat, and conserving electricity. 

Realistically, there are always going to be occasions when carbon emissions are unavoidable. It’s not always feasible or possible to avoid flying. If a loved one is sick on the other side of the world are you really going to take 2 weeks to get there by shipping container? 

What’s more, even people with the greenest lifestyles still have a carbon footprint, particularly in developed countries. Read why you should be carbon offsetting even if you live an eco-friendly lifestyle.

This is where carbon offsetting comes in as a way to take responsibility for the emissions that cannot be avoided. 

Pros and cons of carbon offsetting

Cons: 

  • Needs to happen in conjunction with steps to reduce carbon emissions, from individuals and organizations. Without this we will not be able to reach net zero by 2050. 
  • Currently no laws around carbon emissions and obligation to offset. 

Pros: 

  • Allows individuals and organizations to reach carbon neutral. 
  • Carbon reduction projects reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to sustainable development.
  • Gives individuals a way to make a meaningful difference in the fight against climate change.

Types of carbon offsetting projects

Carbon offsetting projects take a variety of forms. Because carbon emissions are global, we can support carbon offset schemes anywhere in the world to reduce our net emissions. 

Historically, carbon offsetting was synonymous with tree planting, because trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, today the kinds of carbon offsetting schemes available are diverse. They range from reforestation, or protecting biodiversity of flora and fauna, to clean energy schemes. These cover energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. 

Quori Q’oncha improved cookstoves in Peru – a Gold Standard carbon reduction project

Different types of carbon offsetting projects: 

  • Renewable energy: hydroelectric power, solar energy, wind energy, geothermal, and biomass are all sources of renewable energy. Using these sources displaces the need to burn fossil fuels, which uses up finite natural resources and releases polluting emissions into the atmosphere. These contribute to the greenhouse effect which is responsible for climate change. 
  • Energy efficiency: Fuel switching to greener fuels, and making buildings and construction more energy efficient so they require less fuel. 
  • Forestry: Preventing deforestation, planting trees, restoring degraded pastureland and forest areas. Trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 
  • Other: carbon and methane capture. This means catching emissions when they are released and using sophisticated technology to trap them underground. 

Check out the range of projects Treepoints supports. We select the best carbon offset schemes around the world to support on behalf of our members every month. 

Does planting trees offset carbon? 

Trees use carbon dioxide to grow, taking the polluting gas out of the atmosphere. We call this sequestering carbon emissions.This is why many plans to reduce climate change involve protecting existing areas of forestland and planting more trees. 

More than 10 billion trees are cut down every year. This destruction is a significant contributor to the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving the climate crisis. Trees draw carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere as they grow. Planting trees will need to play an important part in ending the climate emergency. 

However, trees grow slowly over many years and they are vulnerable to being burned or chopped down. This can limit the effectiveness of planting trees to reduce greenhouse gases. So we should not rely exclusively on planting trees to offset carbon emissions. 

Carbon offset credits 

A carbon credit is a way of buying and selling carbon offsets. One carbon credit is equivalent to one tonne of carbon dioxide (or equivalent greenhouse gas) removed from the atmosphere. 1 tonne of CO2 is roughly a fifth of annual emissions for UK residents. Or less than a single month of emissions for the average American resident. 

In essence, buying a carbon credit means buying the right to emit one tonne of CO2 because you have paid for one tonne of CO2 to be reduced elsewhere. 

For example, if a person has taken a long-haul flight which has released one tonne of carbon dioxide, they can purchase a carbon credit to offset it. This means buying a carbon credit from a carbon reduction scheme, such as tree planting or energy efficiency projects. As a result the person’s carbon emissions for this journey would then be net zero, because they have paid to offset the same amount of carbon as they have released. As such, carbon credits allow individuals to invest in the transition to a low-carbon future. 

The carbon market

Carbon credits were created as part of the carbon market, which was an initiative established by the Kyoto Protocol in 1992. 

The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The 170 countries that signed the protocol all committed to reducing greenhouse gases to limit the damaging effects of climate change. 

When a project can prove that it is reducing CO2 emissions, (for example by planting trees or swapping to fuel efficient cookstoves) they can then sell carbon credits to earn additional revenue.

This is an important way of financing green practices and technologies that might otherwise struggle to find funding. This is particularly important in developing countries to aid sustainable development. 

How much do carbon offsets cost?

The price of carbon offsets vary depending on the project. The price will depend on who you are purchasing the offset credits from and will vary because of fluctuations in the market price. In general, the price to offset one tonne of CO2 is around $11-12 or £8. If you see credits sold for much less than this, you should be suspicious of whether they are actually delivering the benefits they claim. 

Projects can also be much more expensive than this if they are delivering benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions. 

Gold Standard verified carbon credits are priced according to the Fairtrade carbon credit pricing model. The price is then adjusted to take account of added sustainable development benefits. 

Carbon offsetting and sustainable development

Many schemes don’t just reduce emissions, they also contribute to sustainable development. One of the key points of the UN Paris Agreement in 2015 was to encourage support for developing countries in achieving sustainable development. This was broken down into 17 goals for Sustainable Development. These include tackling global challenges including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

To qualify for Gold Standard certification, carbon offset schemes have to contribute to at least three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This guarantees that the project is doing more than just reducing carbon emissions. It is also contributing to sustainable development around the world. 

Gold standard carbon offsets 

The Gold Standard is a standard and certification for non-governmental carbon emission reduction projects. It was set up in 2003 by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and approved by the UN. It was born out of a need to be able to certify and validate carbon offsetting projects. So Gold Standard ensures that carbon reduction schemes are actually reducing carbon emissions in the way they claim. They do this through rigorous research, regular monitoring and working closely with project managers. 

What is Gold Standard and why do we work with them? 

The Gold Standard certification also requires its projects to prove a positive contribution to such sustainable development, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As a result, not only does carbon offsetting reduce carbon emissions, but when done properly it can also improve the lives of vulnerable communities around the world. 

To ensure total transparency around their projects, Gold Standard has a public Impact Registry. Here you can see all the projects they have certified to date, who has purchased carbon credits, and more details about the project. 

Try for example searching ‘Treepoints’ in Credits. You will see records of all the projects Treepoints has supported to date.

The best way to offset your carbon footprint

The best way to offset your carbon footprint has two steps. 

1. Reduce your carbon footprint as much as you can through making changes to your lifestyle. For example, avoiding flying, eating less meat, and making your home more energy efficient. 

12 ways to reduce your carbon footprint

2. Donate to carbon offsetting schemes. Once you have reduced your carbon footprint as much as you can, you can support carbon reduction projects to offset the remainder. Treepoints makes this simple. With a monthly payment, you can offset your annual carbon footprint. This will help you achieve net zero carbon emissions.This means that you are offsetting the same amount of CO2 as your emissions. 

Does carbon offsetting actually work?
Take responsibility for your carbon footprint and start offsetting your emissions

Conclusion: A licence to pollute? 

Purchasing carbon offsets “is clearly better than doing nothing,” says Cameron Hepburn, the director of Oxford University’s economics of sustainability program. It is important to remember that offsetting is not an excuse to make no changes to your behaviour. 

This is as true for individuals as it is for companies, who can all too easily be accused of ‘greenwashing’. This means that claimed efforts towards sustainability turn out to be no more than a marketing campaign. 

What carbon offsetting does provide is a way to take full responsibility for your carbon emissions and their reduction. This should always be done in tandem with efforts to reduce your footprint. That’s why Treepoints curates green living advice and monthly sustainability challenges for our community. 

Especially while we wait for scientific and technological developments in energy efficiency, carbon offsetting provides a way for individuals to make a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change.