In 2015, 196 countries came together in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels. For this to happen, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) cannot exceed certain thresholds. There are two fundamental ways for this to be achieved. First, by reducing the amount of GHGs released. Second, by increasing the capacity of carbon sinks that take and keep GHGs out of the atmosphere. Most countries are aiming to do both. Nobody has committed to stopping all emissions. This cannot be done. But they have committed to supporting the enhancement of sinks to absorb any emissions that can’t be prevented, a technique better known as carbon offsetting.
Carbon offsets can take many forms. There are nature-based solutions, such as planting new trees, saving trees that would otherwise be cut down, and restoring soils, peatlands, and mangroves. There are energy-based solutions, either replacing fossil fuel generation with renewables or enhancing energy efficiency measures so less fuel is required. And there are pollution-prevention schemes, such as collection and combustion of methane (e.g. in anaerobic digesters), and destruction of industrial pollutants (e.g. HFCs and PFCs) at source. All of these will either prevent greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere or enhance the planet’s ability to absorb them, thereby keeping atmospheric concentrations down.
On the face of it, the development of carbon offsets and the markets trading them is a positive step in tackling climate change. They allow for countries, companies, and individuals to act now to reduce emissions that cannot currently be avoided, either because clean technological alternatives are unavailable or they’re prohibitively expensive. They can be progressive, financially benefitting those that pollute less by providing them with tradeable carbon credits, and penalising those that pollute more and so have to purchase these credits. And very often they are designed to have greater social and environmental benefits than carbon reduction. For instance, one successful offset programme in Kenya worked with local people to develop fuel-efficient cooking stoves that protect forests (by reducing the amount of firewood required), improve health (by reducing smoke production), and reduce work burdens on rural families (as they match existing lifestyles while requiring less time for firewood collection). Carbon offset programmes can therefore be a real force for good.
However, as with all things when it comes to climate change, it’s not that simple. For carbon offsets to work, they have to permanently remove quantifiable amounts of GHGs from the atmosphere, and this is a difficult thing to guarantee – particularly when it comes to nature-based solutions that currently form the bulk of offset programs. Forests grow at different rates and uptake variable amounts of carbon depending on their growth profile. Furthermore, natural disasters such as fires, tsunamis, pests, and diseases can quickly undo years of storage through destruction of ecosystems. Not to mention unnatural disasters, such as illegal logging, corruption, or priority changes, which also undermine carbon storage efforts. Norway and Germany have both had to cease contributions to an Amazon protection fund since Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s policies opened up vast swathes of previously protected rainforest to logging companies.
Inherent to many carbon offsets, then, is an element of risk. Polluters know that they are releasing GHG emissions and are trusting offsets to permanently remove these from the atmosphere. The consequences of getting this wrong are dire, as any foray into climate change projections will reveal. As my sex education teacher taught us at school, abstinence is the safest route. Indeed, the safe-sex metaphor may be a useful one. If pollution is sex, then catastrophic climate change is unwanted teen pregnancy. Carbon offsets are the various contraception options. Some are more reliable than others, many have unintended side effects, the more you use the safer you’ll be, and there is always the chance that they will fail. However, they are better than nothing.
In order for the risk to feel acceptable, there needs to be trust – both in the offsets and in those that are using them. Trust in offsets can be achieved by only using those certified by reputable independent third-parties who continuously monitor projects to ensure they operate as intended and are protected. Trust in those using them is harder to achieve, especially as there are few historical grounds to do so. Action against climate change has been called for since the 1980s. In that time, we have seen great international debate but little progress. We have seen countries refusing to commit and companies deliberately muddying the waters by financing climate denial and lobbying against any attempt at changing business as usual. This is beginning to change, but people’s memories are not so short as to forget the lessons of the recent past. As those who will bear the brunt of the consequences should the risk not pay off, it is a lot to ask of people to trust that your emissions will not be part of the problem.
To build trust – and avoid accusations of greenwashing – it is therefore imperative that carbon offsets are accompanied by significant emissions reduction efforts. Offsets should be used only for those emissions that cannot be prevented. They should not be considered as permission to pollute or carry on harmful activities. It is hard to believe an oil company, say, using offsets is serious about preventing catastrophic climate change if they are simultaneously exploring for new resources, given that use of existing reserves will already make achieving the Paris Agreement impossible. There are not enough carbon sinks in the world to accommodate those levels of emissions. Offsets are a tool in the arsenal against climate change, not the silver bullet that will save us all. Use them wisely.