The role of carbon offsetting in the race to net zero emissions

Published by Georgia Crump on

You may have seen in the news that several countries, including the UK, have recently announced their commitments to net zero emissions and cutting carbon. Everyone agrees that meeting these targets is crucial to preventing the climate crisis. What’s more, scientists are increasingly highlighting the role of carbon offsetting in the race to net zero.

But for everyday people like you and me to start making a difference, we first have to understand the situation. And with all this climate lingo flying around, that’s not always easy. So what does net zero emissions actually mean? And what is the role of carbon offsetting in the race to net zero emissions? 

What does net zero emissions mean?

Put simply, net zero means that we are not adding any new emissions to the atmosphere. 

At net zero, greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced, and all remaining emissions offset. The aim is to neutralise the environmental impact of human activity and slows climate change.

For companies and countries making a commitment to Net Zero, there are some important steps:

  1. Eliminate all carbon emissions that can be avoided.
  2. Remove any remaining unavoidable emissions through carbon removal projects.

Net Zero is much harder to achieve than Carbon Neutral simply because you are obliged to reduce all avoidable emissions, which takes research, time and money. This is why you may have seen companies that are carbon neutral now taking pledges to reach Net Zero in the longer term.

Why does net zero matter? 

Scientists agree that human emissions (made up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) are the main cause of climate change. Owing to human activity and industrialisation, emissions have risen sharply since 1850. As a direct result, global temperatures have risen by 1 to 1.2C. 

This might not seem like a lot, but the effect of this temperature change is dramatic. A changing climate has consequences including extreme weather events (floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves), sea-levels rising, altered crop growth, and disrupted water systems. We are already beginning to see many of these changes around the world today. If we don’t do something to limit this temperature rise, the consequences for our planet will only get worse. 

Merely reducing emissions is not enough. We need to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions to stabilise and start to reduce this temperature rise. As you can see on the graph below, this is a dramatic change and will require large and fast reductions in emissions all around the world. 

C02 emissions must sharply decline before 2050.

The Paris Agreement and net zero emissions 

You may have heard of the UN Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The majority of developed countries have signed this agreement. (Famously the United States withdrew from the Agreement in 2020 under Donald Trump’s leadership). 

In order to achieve this temperature goal, we need to reach a global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible in order to achieve a climate neutral world by 2050. 

The Paris Agreement is a major landmark in the fight against climate change, because it is the first time on record countries around the world have signed a legally binding commitment to combating climate change and its effects. 

Are we on track to achieve net zero emissions? 

Temperatures have already increased by 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, so we’re very close to the 1.5 degree limit.

In the chart below, you can see that current policies (in orange) will not achieve the required temperature reduction. On the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, the global temperature is expected to increase by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. We need more drastic action to halt climate change. 

There are two steps to reaching net zero emissions: 

  1. Reduce current emissions as much as possible 
  2. Offset remaining emissions to reach net zero 

So how can we reduce our current emissions?

Tackling our current emissions involves focusing on making our energy consumption smaller, cleaner, and more efficient. A key part of this will be the transition to clean energy. This means getting our energy from renewable sources like wind and solar, to replace fossil fuels like coal and gas. This transition would significantly reduce carbon emissions. It has already begun, but needs to happen quicker and on a larger scale to reach net zero emissions by 2050. 

Who are the biggest culprits for global greenhouse gas emissions?

Electric vehicles, charged up with renewable energy, will be an important part of slashing emissions. Many countries, including the UK, have included phasing out fossil-fuel powered vehicles in their plans to reach net zero. To make these vehicles cheaper and more efficient will require investment in more research and development. This is part of what’s known as investing in the green economy. 

Another major source of greenhouse gas emissions is the agriculture sector, which provides all the food we consume. We could reduce these emissions if we ate less meat and dairy and more plant-based food. Scientists estimate that if everyone in the world followed a ‘flexitarian’ diet, cutting meat and dairy consumption by three quarters, we would save 5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by 2050. Wasting less in food production, transport, packaging, and households would also lower emissions. 

Read more: How to reduce greenhouse gas

How will carbon offsetting help us reach net zero emissions?

We can only reduce our carbon emissions so quickly. Our built environment already exists, and making this happen with zero emissions will take a long time. Some sectors will be able to do this quicker than others. While we wait for the transition to carbon neutral technology, carbon offsetting is a way of balancing our emissions.

Carbon offsetting means compensating for your emissions by removing emissions from the atmosphere elsewhere. For example, funding reforestation projects or solar power developments both contribute to reducing emissions. These often take place in the global south, supporting sustainable development around the world. 

This sustainable development has a very real economic impact. To date Gold Standard carbon reduction projects have created $22 billion in value. This is down to the benefits of carbon reduction projects aside from reduced CO2 emissions, including biodiversity, employment, health benefits, and improving livelihoods. 

Not all carbon offsetting is the same

Not all credits from carbon offsetting projects qualify for Net Zero targets. Only carbon removal projects can be used to offset emissions. And it’s worth adding that you should only be offsetting emissions that are totally unavoidable. Carbon removal includes carbon capture technology, and is currently still being developed. This makes carbon removal credits expensive.

However, carbon offsetting is a good way of balancing your emissions in the short term to slow down your impact on the environment. This is why many companies are pledging Net Zero targets in the long term and achieving carbon neutral through offsetting in the short term.

Who is responsible for getting us to net zero? 

The main driving force to reaching net zero will need to come at national government level, through legislation and regulation to reduce emissions. However, some countries have a bigger part to play than others. Currently the G20 countries are responsible for 80% of global emissions. This means developed countries need to make much bigger changes to their emissions than countries in the global south, who are responsible for much fewer emissions in the first place. 

What’s more, it’s countries in the global south who are the least responsible for carbon emissions that will feel the worst effects of climate change (heat waves, droughts, flooding). Developed countries have a responsibility to help prevent these effects and support vulnerable people and communities around the world. 

The private sector also needs to act, to commit to reducing emissions in industries like energy, agriculture, and construction. However, individuals can make this happen quicker by changing our habits and applying pressure to companies and governments to make climate commitments. 

Ultimately, this may not come as a surprise, but we are all responsible for reaching net zero. We can do this as individuals through changing our habits and lifestyles to live more sustainably, in a way that does less damage to the planet. 

How can individuals contribute to reaching net zero emissions? 

Part of incentivising governments and organizations to implement climate change policies is showing them that it is economically viable. Individuals can help this through sustainable lifestyle choices such as eating less meat and using less energy. These kinds of trends encourage big businesses and organizations to respond to changing demands and support the green economy. 

While we wait for these changes to come into place we can all do our bit to lower our individual carbon footprints. Carbon offsetting allows us all to reach net zero emissions in our personal lives. The benefits of carbon offsetting are numerous: 

  • Immediate: allows us to reduce our carbon emissions immediately 
  • Carbon neutral: Carbon offsetting is the only way to guarantee your net emissions are zero. You can even become carbon negative if you offset more than your total emissions.
  • Contributing to sustainable development: Carbon reduction projects often have direct benefits for fragile ecosystems and vulnerable communities around the world. Carbon offsetting allows you not only to reduce your footprint, but to contribute positively to global sustainable development
  • Straightforward to do: with carbon offsetting services like Treepoints all you need to do is pick the subscription plan that best suits your lifestyle, and then Treepoints takes care of the research, donations, and admin on your behalf. You receive a monthly update on your offsetting journey and the amazing projects you have supported.

Read more: Why you should be carbon offsetting even if you have an eco-friendly lifestyle

So where can you start? Now that you have a better understanding of the role of carbon offsetting in the race to net zero emissions, it’s time to do something about it. Head over to Treepoints to check out their carbon offsetting subscription plans and start your personal net zero emissions journey.