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What’s wrong with carbon offsetting?


Guilt-ridden holidaymakers jetting off overseas are being advised to do their research before turning to carbon offsetting to tackle emissions. 

Offsetting has become a “go-to solution” for carbon emissions produced by air travel and other human activities, and offers a “simple salve for many a carbon-heavy conscience”, said The Art Newspaper’s Louisa Buck. “But beware the schemes that seem almost too good or cheap to be true: they usually are.”  

Regulations

Carbon offsetting has also been embraced by governments and companies, who trade carbon credits to compensate for their emissions as the world races to achieve net zero.  But critics who question the long-term environmental benefits have pointed to a lack of transparency and regulation in the voluntary carbon offsets market.

A report from investment bank Credit Suisse earlier this year described the market as a “Wild West”.

The industry is currently “covered in a patchwork of voluntary, private-sector standards that fall far short of joined-up global oversight”, said Bloomberg. In theory, a carbon credit is equivalent to one metric ton of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere. 

But there is no standardised way to trade carbon credits and no way to verify the compensating activity behind them.

International think-tank Energy Transitions Commission has warned that the offset market needs to be “tidied up and managed properly, as offsets will form a critical route to limiting global heating to 1.5C in line with scientific warnings”, reported The Guardian’s environment correspondent Fiona Harvey. 

Additionality

Offsetting can provides companies with “a good story” that allows them to “swerve away from taking meaningful action”, said Greenpeace.

One of the “key components” in supporting confidence in carbon credits is the idea of additionality, said Forbes. To qualify as a genuine carbon offset, “the reductions achieved by a project need to be ‘additional’ to what would have happened” without the scheme in place.

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If offset credits and their associated greenhouse gas reductions “are not additional, then purchasing offset credits in lieu of reducing your own emissions will make climate change worse”, according to the Carbon Offset Guide, a product of the Carbon Offset Research and Education initiative. But evaluating whether these reductions “are additional can be deceptively difficult”. 

And “even additional carbon offsets are not some kind of magic pill or shortcut”, but rather “one tangible and effective tool” to be used alongside other measures in order to cut emissions, said Forbes.

Sustainability

Offset projects “must permanently lock away” carbon emissions in order to benefit the climate, said Friends of the Earth. Tree planting is one of the most popular offsetting projects, but as recent forest fires across Europe and the US have highlighted, “trees can burn down”. Trees can also “be killed by pests” or “chopped down to make way for farming, roads and so on”, so planting projects “can’t guarantee” the longevity of atmospheric carbon removal. 

Recent research by San Francisco-based non-profit CarbonPlan found that carbon offsets generated from forests “to counteract future climate-warming emissions from California’s big polluters” were “rapidly being depleted as trees are ravaged by wildfire and disease”, Reuters reported.

The Overview

Despite such criticisms, carbon offsets undoubtedly do have environmental benefits. But is buying carbon credits an effective way to tackle climate change? What could be done to solve the offset market’s problems? And what role could new technologies play in the race to net zero? 

In this episode of The Overview, The Week speaks to Dr Steve Smith, of the University of Oxford, Gilles Dufrasne, policy officer at Carbon Market Watch, and Dirk Nuber at Climeworks.

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