Offsetting emissions or offsetting responsibility?
Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Written By: Lauren Rosenthal
Edited By: Vanessa Lu Langley
"Carbon offsetting is rapidly becoming a mainstay of modern business practices"
Carbon offsetting is rapidly becoming a mainstay of modern business practices. It manifests as an extra fee when booking tickets through airlines such as Delta and Air Canada, or as announcements from brands such as Google, Amazon, and Lyft that their CO2 emissions are being counterbalanced to claim “net-zero.” Companies are increasingly promising customers the ability to compensate for their consumption guilt-free (Niiler, 2020), but carbon offsetting is not a silver bullet in the modern climate crisis and does not negate the need for businesses to strive towards low/zero-emissions practices.
The offsetting schemes provided by these companies fall into the category of voluntary carbon offsetting- they can choose to pay to reduce their emissions. This is in contrast to mandatory or compliance offsetting schemes, which are government-mandated for countries or institutions in order to limit their emissions. In the case of voluntary schemes, the company measures the quantity of carbon that will be emitted by the products or services in question and pays a third-party to offset an equivalent quantity through environmental projects (Kaplan, 2020). These projects fall into four main categories: (1) the planting or preservation of trees in order to sequester carbon, (2) investment into renewable energy projects, (3) investment into energy-efficient technology or construction, or (4) reduction of harmful emissions aside from CO2 (Polonsky et al. 2010). Tree-planting or forest conservation initiatives tend to be particularly popular (Gössling et al. 2007).
Although on paper, carbon offsetting appears to be a simple and effective idea, executing it successfully is anything but. A common criticism is that the effectiveness of the service can be very difficult to verify. A key characteristic of successful carbon offsetting is additionality, the idea that the reduction in emissions that was paid for would not have happened otherwise. If this is not the case, the offset has not actually accomplished anything. Unfortunately, additionality is very complicated to properly evaluate and prove due to all the potential fluctuations in other activities and/or projects that may exist in a given area, and because it requires meticulous monitoring that often does not actually take place (Irfan, 2020). This creates ambiguity about the extent to which emissions are actually reduced.
Temporality and permanence are major considerations as well. If a project relies on planting trees to reduce carbon emissions, for example, it will take 20 years for the trees to mature enough to absorb the advertised amount of CO2. This implicitly includes a commitment on behalf of those responsible for offsetting to protect these trees until then, which is not always fulfilled, whether intentionally or not. For instance, the trees might never reach maturity because of an extreme weather event, such as a wildfire or drought. On the other hand, the political unpredictability in the countries where many offset projects take place can result in so-called protected forests being cut down due to insufficient governmental restrictions or by the population for the purpose of its own development (Song, 2019, Gössling et al. 2007). On top of the complications involved in ensuring that the promised offsetting projects are actually completed, the fact that many will only yield results several years into the future is problematic, as climate change demands urgent, immediate action.
This is where the less practical and more theoretical and ethical problems come into play. Carbon offsetting provides companies with the incentive to push climate action further into the future instead of actively working to improve their own technological and business practices. For instance, airlines could focus the money earned from voluntary carbon offsetting into improving their energy efficiency (Gössling et al. 2007). It also raises questions about climate justice; many of the offsetting projects are located in the Global South and risk using land that the Indigenous community might want or need to make use of (Greenpeace, 2020). Carbon offsetting allows the Global North to continue with business-as-usual practices on their own turf while potentially intervening even further in the Global South and potentially threatening the local communities’ land rights.
While carbon offsetting may be successfully executed in some contexts, it cannot be treated as a true climate change solution. It may have a place in a company’s environmental strategy once it has done everything it can to reduce its own emissions, but on its own, it merely allows them to postpone the difficult work of transitioning towards sustainable internal practices while still claiming to be “green”. Carbon offsetting is far from the convenient, painless way forward that it is often made out to be. Treating it as such would only serve to hold us back.
Gössling, S., Broderick, J., Upham, P.,Ceron, J., Dubois, G., Peeters, P. & Strasdas, W. (2007) Voluntary Carbon Offsetting Schemes for Aviation: Efficiency, Credibility and Sustainable Tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 15(3), 223-248. doi: 10.2167/jost758.0
Greenpeace. (2020). The biggest problem with carbon offsetting is that it doesn’t really work. Greenpeace. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/the-biggest-problem-with-carbon-offsetting-is-that-it-doesnt-really-work/
Irfan, U. (2020). Can you really negate your carbon emissions? Carbon offsets, explained. Vox. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/2020/2/27/20994118/carbon-offset-climate-change-net-zero-neutral-emissions
Kaplan, S. (2020). How do carbon offsets work? The Washington Post. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2020/09/23/climate-curious-advice/
Polonsky, M.J., Grau, S.L., Garma., R. (2010). The New Greenwash? Potential Marking Problems with Carbon Offsets. International journal of business studies, 18(1), 49-54.
Song, L. (2019). An (even more) inconvenient truth: why carbon credits for forest preservation may be worse than nothing. Propublica. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://features.propublica.org/brazil-carbon-offsets/inconvenient-truth-carbon-credits-dont-work-deforestation-redd-acre-cambodia/
Niiler, E. (2020). Do carbon offsets really work? It depends on the details. Wired. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.wired.com/story/do-carbon-offsets-really-work-it-depends-on-the-details/