The Pros and Cons of Offsetting
I’ve never signed up to the George Monbiot view that offsetting carbon emissions (ie paying a third party to remove an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere to your carbon footprint) is intrinsically immoral. Instead I cleave to the Mark Lynas view that climate change is such an existential challenge that we can’t afford to be too purist about how we address it. We now have 90% of the world’s economy covered by some kind of Net Zero target and the ‘net’ in Net Zero implies an element of offsetting, so we can’t shy away from the issue. Here’s my take:
- If you have a Net Zero target, offsetting gives you some mental wriggle room. Most organisations would struggle to design a trajectory to an absolute zero carbon footprint today, so the bit that is not clear can be filed under ‘innovation and/or offsetting’. Then you can get on with the bits you do know how to do without tying yourself in perfectionist knots.
- Offsetting is effectively an internal carbon tax, increasing the cost of business as usual and making low carbon options more attractive in investment appraisal.
- That internal carbon tax is ring-fenced for environmental projects eg tree planting, which is generally better than not tree planting.
- There is no consensus on what balance of reductions:offsetting is valid to reach Net Zero. This opens the door to the lazy/cynical to rely on offsetting alone or in the majority to reach an apparent ‘Net Zero’ status.
- Additionality: for offsetting to work in practice, each project must reduce carbon above and beyond what would have happened under business as usual. Again there is a lot of scope for dodgy dealings – if a piece of high-biodiversity scrubland is cleared to make way for tree planting offsets, has the planet really benefited? How do you know the land with the trees won’t be sold for future development? How do you know the tree-planting won’t release as much carbon from the soil as the trees will absorb?
- The media attacks on offsetting, whether justified or exaggerated, opens the door for accusations of greenwash even for the best programmes.
So, is there a role for offsetting? I would say a qualified ‘yes’ – ie under the following guidelines:
- Set an ambitious minimum target for actual carbon reductions before offsetting becomes an option – I advise 90+%. This reduces the impact on the planet if the offsetting fails in practice and focusses attention on the big changes that need to happen.
- Use accredited offsetting schemes. Even though some have come under recent criticism, it is in the interest of high profile schemes to make it work.
- Transparency about everything.