Carbon Offsetting: Solution or Scapegoat?

  • 14 December 2020
  • Environment
  • George Beesley and Jacob Ashton

Call to Adventure seeks to inspire and facilitate us to get outside more, connect with others, and do our bit to take care of the planet along the way. But like many businesses (and individuals) we have to ask ourselves whether what we’re doing is really a force for good.

One of the questions we wrestle with is whether we should be selling international trips. Whilst we encourage our community to adventure close to home, many people fly to and from their destinations. Regardless of the many benefits that travel brings, such as employment in developing economies and a greater appreciation for nature and our fellow humans, we are still contributing to demand for carbon-intensive travel. 

Carbon offsetting was naturally the first port of call. It’s a straightforward enough concept: you pay an initiative to ‘offset’ the carbon your lifestyle or business practices emit, through capturing carbon or preventing emissions elsewhere. Sounds like a great solution. But is it really that simple?

How does Carbon offsetting work? 

Offset projects tackle emissions in a variety of ways. Some focus on carbon capture, which involves directly removing carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Planting trees is the most obvious example of this. Others focus on preventing future emissions, such as by providing energy-efficient appliances, supporting renewable energy projects, carbon credits, or working on ways to capture greenhouse gases at the point of emission.

Carbon offsetting methods: an overview

  • Planting trees - what everyone thinks of first, but isn’t thought to be the best immediate solution. Trees do capture carbon, but over many years, and are only effective if certain conditions are met.

  • Ecosystem restoration - helping to accelerate the recovery of damaged ecosystems that act as natural carbon stores, such as peatlands or mangroves.

  • Investment in energy efficiency - efficient cooking stoves for developing countries are popular; capturing methane gas released from landfill is another.

  • Investment in renewable energy - the future is in renewables, and contributing to such an offset project accelerates the transition.

  • Buying up carbon credits - some organisations (most notably the EU) have a finite number of carbon credits they can trade freely with one another, that give them permission to emit a certain quantity of greenhouse gases. By buying them and not using them, overall emissions are reduced.

It’s worthwhile thinking about the ‘side-effects’ of such offset projects. Occasionally these can be negative - tree planting on arable land isn’t often good news for farmers, for example - but most often they can be positive. For instance, improvements in households’ energy efficiency can mean communities don’t have to spend so much on fuel, and suffer less from smoke-related disease. Restoring ecosystems brings benefits to biodiversity and provides ‘ecosystem services’ that benefit humans too. This additionality is true of many ways of combating climate change. There is a huge amount of overlap between efforts to rein in carbon emissions and efforts to build a better, more equitable world.

Indulgences and infidelity: carbon offsetting controversy 

There’s plenty of scepticism about whether carbon offsetting is a legitimate strategy in trying to create a sustainable society. It comes under criticism for several reasons.

The most common is that relying on carbon offsets could theoretically create a culture of complacency. In his piece Selling Indulgences, George Monbiot famously compared it to the practice of ‘indulgences’ that the Catholic Church condoned in centuries past, where the rich and powerful could pay the church to ‘offset’ their sin and allegedly shorten their time in purgatory once they’d passed away. Another scathing metaphor is made through the satirical Cheatneutral site, which offers to ‘offset’ your infidelity to your partner by paying another individual to remain faithful.

Both these critiques play on the idea that our impact on the environment is a result of our moral choices, which should remain with us and only us. This is tied to the idea that this ‘easy fix’ means that we are not encouraged to change our own lifestyles. Initiatives are also mightily abused at the corporate level, and can help fuel greenwashing - businesses using carbon offsetting to market themselves as ‘eco’ whilst simultaneously harming the environment elsewhere.

At the personal level, however, it’s potentially a different story. We currently live in a system where it’s hugely difficult to live a carbon-neutral lifestyle. In fact, offsetting is likely the only way we can practically achieve this goal. It is also a way of engaging people with the issue of climate change, stimulating conversations and leading to knock-on positive lifestyle changes. Ultimately, changing public perceptions leads to systemic change - so it’s at least a step in the right direction.

Why carbon offsetting can be so cheap 

The price of offsetting a tonne of carbon dioxide is not very much - one 2016 estimate put it at an average of $3.30 per tonne. This means the average UK citizen could offset their entire annual carbon footprint for about £15. If emissions are such bad news, but they can be offset so cheaply, why don’t governments and companies just do it as a matter of course?

That is an extremely good point, particularly for the guilty governments and companies in question. Some people even use this as a reason not to offset: why is it up to us to pay up to cover governments’ shortcomings? Most countries signed up to the climate targets of the Paris Agreement, after all. Although we should absolutely hold governments to account and urge them to spend more on offset initiatives, it is important to offset as and when you can afford to, helping pave the way to sustainable change.One reason that offsetting is fairly cheap at the moment because not that many people do it, so there are plenty of effective initiatives for little cost - ‘low-hanging fruit’, if you like. In theory, as the world becomes more serious about offsetting emissions, these easy options will get used up and the cost of offsetting will steadily rise. In the other direction, technological breakthroughs may bring down the future cost of offsetting, but we’re not there yet.

What are the best carbon offsets? 

There are plenty of good carbon offsetting initiatives out there, so the one you pick often comes down to personal choice. You do, however, want to make sure you avoid the less legitimate ones that don’t deliver on their promises. There are a couple of accreditation organisations that help make this job easier for you. 

The voluntary Gold Standard is considered the most rigorous standard by many, and prides itself on quantifying carbon savings as accurately as possible. It also emphasises projects that have added benefits for communities, economies and more. 

The Verified Carbon Standard is another decent one to look out for. It’s not quite as well-known as the Gold Standard, but has a similar level of rigour and is more accessible for smaller projects. Such on-the-ground initiatives are worth supporting and often bring big benefits to local communities.

Although neither of these are always perfect, any offset initiative that is accredited by one (or both) is a pretty good bet that your money is going to the right place.

Lessons to learn 

So is carbon offsetting worth it? The short answer is yes, absolutely, if the emissions in question are unavoidable. It’s not as good as preventing these emissions altogether, but it’s certainly better than doing nothing. There’s also the bonus of all the additional benefits that carbon offsetting can bring to ecosystems and communities, if the right projects are supported. And on top of that, it also starts a conversation about how we can all change our lifestyles - and the bigger system - to make the world a better, more sustainable place, to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Founded by George Beesley, Call to Adventure is an eco-adventure organisation on a mission to help create happier people and a healthier planet through adventure and community. They offset their carbon emissions using Carbon Footprint and are also a member of 1% for the Planet. This article was put together by their environmental writer Jacob Ashton.