What is carbon offsetting (and is it a climate change solution for my business)?

At Dial A Geek, we do carbon offsetting. But is carbon offsetting an automatic win when it comes to your business and climate change?

Well, sadly for all of us, no. Yet that’s no reason not to do it.

Just as long as we understand what carbon offsetting can and can’t do – and the types of offsetting that work and those that are more… questionable in their effectiveness:

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is the idea that a person or business’s own fossil fuel emissions can be counterbalanced (“offset”) by paying others to reduce their own emissions or undertake activities to absorb more GHG (Greenhouse Gases, predominantly carbon dioxide).

These “carbon offsets” are measured in tons of CO2 and are bought and sold in a global market.

The most common example of a carbon offset is when companies pay another business to plant trees on their behalf.

Does carbon offsetting work?

This is a question that needs a bit more definition. If we’re asking “is carbon offsetting the solution to climate change?”, the answer is no. The solution to climate change is basically we need to start emitting a whole lot fewer GHGs.

But if the question becomes “can carbon offsetting be part of the solution to halt climate change?”, there’s room for a “yes”.

However, there are different types of carbon offsetting projects. Not all of these have a truly beneficial climate impact. There are two factors that really govern whether or not any given carbon offsetting project can be said to “work”:

  1. Must be extra – the total emissions with the project must be lower than emissions without it.
  2. Must be enduring – if you plant a tree as part of a carbon offsetting project, if it is later removed or dies, it doesn’t count.

Carbon offsetting that works

You can broadly summarise the types of carbon offsetting projects that can thus be said to “work” well into two groups:

  1. Renewable energy carbon offsetting – things like using wind, solar, hydro, geothermal or biomass power generation instead of fossil fuels.
  2. Energy efficiency carbon offsetting – things like LED light bulbs, designed to use less energy than the traditional products or systems that would perform the same task.

Carbon offsetting that doesn’t work as well

Carbon sequestration

The eagle-eyed reader will note that the classic example of a carbon offsetting project – planting trees in compensation for environmentally harmful activities, otherwise known as carbon sequestration – didn’t come in under the “this works” heading.

The problem is that a tree planted today can take two decades or longer to offset the amounts of carbon that most schemes claim it will. That’s 20 years or more that all those trees need to be protected and grow up big and strong, without losses to things like disease, fire or forestation.

Plus, there’s literally not enough room on Earth for the sheer volume of carbon sinks (think “forests”) to compensate for all human climate-destroying activity.

Aviation carbon offsets

Aviation is an industry that revolves around burning large quantities of fossil fuels. This makes any aviation carbon offsetting scheme difficult to see as anything much more than a PR exercise.

Most aviation offsetting schemes are based around planting trees (largely encouraging their customers to pay extra to plant a tree to “offset” the carbon created by their flight).

This, as we’ve seen, is a much less effective (borderline ineffective) carbon offsetting system. Aviation carbon offsetting that actually works would have to revolve around actually reducing overall emissions, probably including making aviation technology greener.

That said, it has transpired recently that the aviation industry might not be the only actor engaged in carbon offsetting whose efforts could be improved.

The Guardian’s investigation into Verra

Verra is the carbon offsetting company used by brands like Gucci, Shell, BHP, Leon, and Disney. The company is a huge player in the voluntary carbon offsets market.

Recently, The Guardian newspaper in the UK, Die Zeit in Germany, and the non-profit journalistic organisation SourceMaterial reported on the latest scientific studies into Verra’s projects. The journalists also interviewed industry insiders and local people that live near Verra projects.

The reporting describes Verra’s projects as “largely worthless”. The studies claim that around 94% of some of Verra’s most popularly used carbon credits are “phantoms” with no environmental benefit. Despite this, numerous companies claim that their products or services are “carbon neutral” thanks to their involvement with Verra’s schemes.

There were also human rights questions raised over reports that in at least one Verra project local people claimed they’d been evicted and had their homes destroyed.

What does the carbon offset industry say?

Needless to say, Verra and the carbon offset and finance industry as a whole don’t accept many of the report’s findings. Those that do observe that:

  1. Conserving forests and rainforests is vital – even The Guardian report says carbon offsetting potentially has a major role in halting deforestation.
  2. Choosing the right projects is key – prioritising and assessing the quality and environmental benefits of individual carbon offsetting projects is vital if there is to be any noticeable effect.
  3. Independent analysis is a must – organisations like Sylvera are independent verifiers of projects, ensuring their impact on local people as well as the environment is beneficial.

Is carbon offsetting a business climate change solution?

The major takeaway is that carbon offsetting is only worthwhile if it is extra and it is enduring. That is to say, if it results in lower carbon emissions than there would be if there was no offsetting.

Switching to renewable energy or lowering your energy usage does this. Planting some trees while continuing to operate your international airline does not.

Reducing your carbon footprint and carbon offsetting are worthwhile. Yet as an automatic win for businesses when it comes to climate change, we all need to make sure we do our research first.

Green IT

Check out our Guide to Greener IT for some alternative green tech business strategies.

Or why not get in touch for a chat? Book a free consultation to talk through “greening” your tech while still growing your business.