Offsetting your carbon footprint may not be the best solution for achieving true sustainability.
Carbon offsetting, the practice of reducing the effects of your carbon footprint by funding projects that reduce or remove carbon emissions, is often seen as a way to mitigate the negative environmental impact of our daily lives. However, there are several reasons why offsetting may not be the best solution for achieving true sustainability, and that applies to planning sustainable events too.
How offsetting works
The carbon market was established in 2005 with the creation of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that aimed to address global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Under the protocol, industrialised countries agreed to reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide. To achieve these reductions, the protocol established a system of carbon credits, known as Kyoto units, which countries could buy and sell in order to meet their emissions reduction targets.
The carbon market operates then through this system of carbon credits, also known as carbon offsetting. These credits represent the reduction or removal of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and they are bought and sold on the open market. The most common type of carbon credit is the Certified Emission Reduction (CER), which is issued by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for emission-reduction projects in developing countries.
Companies and governments can purchase carbon credits to offset their own emissions, in order to meet emissions reduction targets. These carbon credits can be obtained from various sources, such as renewable energy projects, reforestation or afforestation projects. The carbon credits are then verified and certified by organisations such as The Gold Standard and the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) (see table).
|Carbon Offset Standard/Verification
|Verra, based in Washington DC, the world’s leading certifier, operates the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and has issued more than 1bn carbon credits. Its projects have come under criticism of late.
|Gold Standard (GS VER)
|The Gold Standard for the Global Goals, is a standard and logo certification mark program for non-governmental emission reductions projects developed in 2003 by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
|Carbon Trust Standard
|The Carbon Trust Standard was introduced by UK-based The Carbon Trust in 2008 to address business 'greenwash'. The Carbon Standard is only awarded to companies and organisations who measure and reduce their carbon emissions year on year.
|Climate Action Reserve
|Climate Action Reserve is a US-based organisation that provides certification for carbon offset projects, it may not have a such stringent requirement as Gold Standard or VCS. They focus on a range of project types, including renewable energy, reforestation, and capture and destruction of greenhouse gases.
Controversy has arisen about the validity of the certifications provided by some of these schemes. A recent Investigation into the Verra carbon standard found that more that more than 90% of their rainforest carbon offsets were worthless ‘phantom credits’, and even be may worsening global warming.
Many argue that that whole concept of carbon offsetting in the first place is a form of greenwashing and could be used to delay real emissions reductions, while advocates of the practice argue that it can be a cost-effective way to reduce emissions and promote sustainable development.
Buying carbon credits
A number of different organisations offer the opportunity to buy carbon credits. Some are;
|Registry/Source of Credits
|Based in South Africa - sells credits from projects that are independently audited against carbon market standards that have been approved by the UNFCCC
|Founded in Germany and now in North America and EU. Offers carbon offset projects which comply to recognised standards, such as the Gold Standard or the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS).
|Selection criteria is based on decarbonisation potential and the environmental impact of projects.
|All projects are assessed against 6 aspects of project sustainability: carbon, biodiversity, social, financial, human and natural components.
The problems with offsetting
Growing criticism of the whole concept of ‘offsetting’ carbon footprints has led to some organisations starting to refer to the process as ‘carbon contribution’. This is designed to make the point that purchasing credits should not be viewed as entirely negating carbon footprint-creating activity. Nevertheless, the arguments remain against any version of a credits-based approach being the best solution for achieving sustainability;
1. It relies on a (possibly flawed) assumption that carbon emissions can be easily quantified and offset through the funding of projects such as reforestation or renewable energy. But, the carbon footprint of an individual or organisation is often difficult to accurately measure and can depend on a variety of factors, such as the location of the offsetting project and the method of carbon accounting used. This makes it difficult to determine the real impact of offsetting efforts.
2. It can create a false sense of security and allow individuals and organisations to continue with ‘business as usual’, rather than taking responsibility for planning to reduce carbon emissions. This can lead to a lack of meaningful action towards achieving true sustainability.
3. It can create negative side effects, such as the displacement of indigenous communities in the areas where offsetting projects are implemented. It can also be used as a form of greenwashing, where companies use the offsetting to make their operations appear more sustainable than they actually are.
4. It can be costly and can divert resources from other sustainability programs that can have more direct and long-lasting impact.
Sustainability expert Professor Mike Berners-Lee says;
“There is no such thing as an offset. It’s a bogus concept. If you do something that has a carbon footprint like getting on an aeroplane, there is nothing you can do to undo the fact you have had that impact. “
In some circumstances, offsetting can be a valuable tool for reducing carbon emissions, but it shouldn’t ever be a substitute for the necessary changes in daily behaviours and operations to achieve true sustainability. Instead of relying solely on offsetting, businesses and individuals should be focusing on reducing carbon emissions through changes in daily behaviours and operations. This can include switching to renewable energy sources, increasing energy efficiency, switching to fully recyclable materials, and implementing sustainable transportation options.