Many individuals and businesses are lulled into a false sense of security by the idea that they can simply offset the carbon they emit or are responsible for emitting with a carbon offset scheme.
But the truth of the matter is that carbon offsetting alone will not tackle the climate crisis, not solve the other urgent environmental issues we face. It is important to understand that carbon offsetting can only ever be part of the picture. And it can do more harm than good if it blinds us to the reality of the situation.
An effective carbon offset scheme must:
- Be additional – i.e. not have happened were it not funded by the money from the carbon offsets.
- Not cause additional emissions elsewhere.
- Be permanent – i.e. not be reversed in the future.
Many carbon offset schemes fail to meet these criteria. Often, they are little more than a sop to sustainable consumers – PR schemes that ‘make a business look good’ without actually offsetting emissions.
Tree planting schemes, for example, often face particular challenges and frequently fail to deliver on the above. Permanence is particularly difficult to guarantee. Reforestation is critical for a range of reasons. But it cannot be viewed as a substitute for cutting emissions in the first place. Storing carbon in trees and other vegetation is no substitute for simply keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
Investing in renewable energy schemes etc., which are actively reducing emissions, is generally speaking a better bet than investing in tree planting schemes with no effective monitoring of actual results.
Investment in climate action: sustainable agriculture, effective land management, conservation and bioremediation are also potentially more viable carbon offset options. But again, it can often be challenging to assess their real, true impact. It is not always possible to determine whether or not they meet the conditions for an effective carbon offset scheme mentioned above.
Reducing carbon emissions and the emissions of other greenhouse gases in the first place is essential if we are to really tackle the crisis, rather than just paying lip service to the problems.