There was a time when carbon offsetting sounded like it might absolve all our environmental sins. Enjoy a flight to a sunny holiday destination, then plant the equivalent number of trees and your carbon emissions magically disappear. Right? Wrong.
It was never as simple as that, but there is a growing awareness of how carbon offsetting is at best greenwashing, and at worst, a licence to continue in habits and systems that are fuelling a world that is on track for four degrees of warming, rather than capping it to below two.
As environmental journalist George Monbiot put it in a recent interview with Wicked Leeks: “Offsetting was always dodgy, but now the age of offsets should be well and truly over.
“We have to have maximum reduction of our carbon emissions, and maximum drawdown of the carbon we’ve already produced, if we’re going to have any chance of avoiding 1.5 or even two degrees of heating. We have to maximise both, we can’t trade them off against each other.”
While the key message must be to reduce, and the idea of offsetting might be redundant, the techniques used in offsetting, like tree planting and renewable energy, do play an important role.
“I think the most important thing to say about carbon offsetting is we absolutely cannot offset our way out of the climate emergency,” says Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate change at WWF. “We need rapid and deep cutting of direct emissions, particularly flying, as well as greenhouse gas removal, through things like trees, soil, peat, wetlands and other natural ways of doing so.
“When we plant a tree, we are contributing to carbon removal, so offsetting does have some value. For unavoidable flights, we should try and offset them – as long as it’s permanent, and it’s going to carry on removing carbon from the atmosphere.”
Not all offset projects focus on tree planting: the WWF’s Gold Standard scheme includes a range of projects covering renewable energy, heating efficiency and cooking fuel.
Trees for Life is a Scottish carbon offset scheme available to businesses, based on Dundreggan estate in the Highlands. It comprises over 100 hectares of native woodland where the aim is to connect habitats and allow nature to restore itself as part of a broader rewilding mission.
Conservation manager at Trees for Life, Alan McDonnell, echoes both Monbiot and WWF, in his key message: “The nub of the climate change issue is emitting less.”
He warns that some of the issues with carbon offsetting schemes are verification and auditing, as well as how exactly they are offsetting their carbon.
“We quantified the amount of carbon that the woodland will sequester over 100 years, using the Woodland Carbon Code. That gave us a figure just north of 50,000 tonnes,” says McDonnell. “You plug in the amount of land, species of tree, density of trees, etc, that will give you an idea of how much carbon you can re-sequester.”
The other issue is that not all tree planting is equal. “If you’re establishing your trees by ploughing through organic soil, you’ve exposed a lot of soil to the air to oxidise, and you release a shit load of carbon before you’ve even started,” he says, adding that hand-planting helps avoid this issue.
One of the biggest criticisms of offsetting is the licence to continue in high emitting activities, while falsely being able to claim you are paying it off.
“Offsets should never be used in place of reduction measures. Otherwise this could encourage disregard for carbon emissions by companies that can afford to simply offset any of their activities,” explains Zac Goodall, technical compliance coordinator at organic veg box company Riverford, who recently conducted the first carbon footprint analysis of the farm’s operations.
“Many offset schemes can provide a host of other benefits – well-designed mixed forests that are maintained throughout their lifetime can act as a carbon sink while providing numerous ecosystem services (flood retention, soil health, biodiversity increases, natural recreation areas,” he says. “There is a huge difference between a poorly-maintained monoculture of non-native trees, and a carefully planned mixed woodland maintained throughout its lifespan.”
For businesses, the process of a carbon footprint analysis – with or without an offsetting goal – does have standalone benefits in identifying carbon emission hotspots and where reductions might take place.
Founder of south-west coffee roastery Yallah, Rich Blake, recently carried out an unaudited carbon footprint and offsetting process. “One outcome was that it highlighted other areas of the business that we hadn’t really thought about,” he says.
“One of the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint was our own air travel to visit producers. The coffee itself comes by seafreight and you ship a large amount of it in one go. I didn’t go to Nicaragua this year because I could see it would reduce our carbon footprint by 30 per cent, so now we go every other year.”
Is it still worth doing?
The flaws in carbon offsetting as a concept shouldn’t deter individuals from planting trees, says Redmond-King. “Any individual group, community or company that just wants to grow trees or plant things that provide a home for nature should just do it. Don’t worry about counting,” he says.
But as always, it’s change on a societal and national level that will really make the difference in meeting climate and carbon reduction targets.
“Offsetting at a national level means something else. What we do in our own borders to reduce our emissions, compared to doing it somewhere else – that is not responsible behaviour,” says Redmond-King.
“The UK is the first major economy to put [carbon targets] into law. If a future government doesn’t take action on it, then there will be lots of us waiting to take them to court.”