Carbon offsetting: have we got the balance right?

By Hanna Pumfrey

Over the last few months I have heard carbon offsetting mentioned with ever increasing regularity. On the surface carbon offsetting looks to be the answer to the eco-conscious traveller’s dreams. But is it a solution to the carbon footprint created by all those flights we take to far flung destinations? Or is the only thing we’re offsetting our guilty consciences?

Carbon offsetting came on the scene in 1997 after the Kyoto Protocol. Despite the big name, it is a simple, two-step process:

1.     Determine how much CO2 your activity produces

2.     Fund a project that reduces carbon emissions by the same amount. The organisations you can invest in range from reforestation projects to implementing energy efficient stoves in developing nations.

Simple right. Offsetting equals guilt free travel and living?

Wrong. If only it was that easy.

The global average for CO2 emissions per person, per year is 5.2 tonnes. In the UK, we are each responsible for around 13.5 tonnes. According to WWF UK, this needs to be reduced to 1.5 tonnes per person per year by 2050 in order for the UK to stick to its target of reducing overall CO2 emissions by 80%. This is what is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The reality is that calculating CO2 production is usually inaccurate and overlooks other environmental exploitation. For example, your donation may have prevented an Amazonian landowner from selling his land to a logging company (great!), but what’s stopping the logging company just buying the plot next door. This is known as carbon leakage. Your donation simply shifted deforestation rather than preventing it.

Furthermore, the reality is that only around 30% of your donation to an offsetting organisations makes it to the project itself. The projects themselves are also often dubious; cheap, quick fix initiatives such as supplying low energy light bulbs to impoverished communities or planting trees.

The argument from carbon experts is that for your carbon offsetting activity to have a positive effect, it needs to be:

  • Real
  • Verified
  • Enforceable
  • Additional

In effect the project that you invest in needs to be something that wouldn’t have happened without the carbon offsetting project- it needs to be in addition to already existing environmental and conservation projects.

Certifications have been introduced to try and help make it easier to find valid offsetting projects such as the Voluntary Gold Standard and Voluntary Carbon Standard. These are comparable to the voluntary standards set for organic and fairly traded food. So, if you are going to offset, look out for organisations with these certifications.

However, even most of these organisations say that using an offset scheme to manage your carbon output should always be part of an individual or businesses move towards reducing their overall carbon emissions rather than being an easy, quick fix for a sustainable lifestyle.

In my opinion, that right there is the crux of it. Carbon offsetting is not pointless but it’s not the answer. It does not mean that we can continue living our lives the way we are, but it can help us in our journey towards lower impact living.

I wanted to write this article as I am increasingly seeing influential individuals talking about offsetting as the answer to them continuing there supposedly sustainable, yet jet-set, lives that sees them flying multiple times a month and using disposable items as they go. Is voluntary offsetting just being used as a way for people to get out of changing their lifestyles? It is important to note though that a report by the Sustainable Development Commission suggested that a positive approach to offsetting could have public resonance well beyond the CO2 offset and increased awareness of the need for other measures outside of offsetting will never be a bad thing.

So, the conclusion? I think of you offset as part of your ongoing efforts to lower your carbon footprint then great. What it is not though is the end if the story.