To offset or not to offset…
Offsetting is back in the news, and with the same old debate: is it a good idea to get someone else to reduce/absorb carbon emissions for you?
I first became aware of offsetting about 20 years ago when the idea was that you calculated your carbon footprint and then bought the equivalent amount of negative emissions from somebody else to become ‘carbon neutral’. Later I found myself on the board of Carbon Neutral North East (CNNE), a charity providing carbon reduction advice and offsetting in my local region.
After a couple of years, a number of green commentators weighed in, most notably George Monbiot who likened offsetting to buying indulgences from the church in medieval times, even for murder – “you can now buy complacency, political apathy and self-satisfaction” as he put it. Allied with a number of press reports on failed offset schemes, these broadsides holed most offsetting below the waterline. With public opinion turning against offsetting, and the introduction of a ‘Gold Standard’ which precluded local offset projects (the whole point of what we were trying to do), we decided to fold CNNE.
A small backlash against the backlash started, with Mark Lynas arguing in his excellent book, The God Species, that the (apparent) death of offsetting meant that people kept on emitting carbon, but not investing in offsetting schemes. How is that a win for the environment, he asked?
But offsetting never really went away. International carbon markets, such as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, provide offsetting at a higher level, despite some high profile carbon fraud scandals. And now, with ‘net zero’ being the climate change target of choice (implying an element of offsetting), there is a big question: can we hit such a target without offsetting?
Maybe it’s because of my experiences at CNNE, but I’ve always been sympathetic to the offsetting principle on the grounds that:
- Tree-planting or investing in clean technology in developing countries is clearly a good thing. So why would you turn down a source of funding for low carbon projects? CNNE funded the insulation of houses of people who were fuel poor – an admirable cause.
- Monbiot’s offset/indulgence comparison is clearly overblown – taking a flight and murdering someone are hardly moral equivalents. Would someone really make a behavioural decision, e.g. going on a long haul flight for the trip of a lifetime, on the basis of whether or not they could offset it? I suspect for most people the decision to fly comes first and the offset second. I would also guess (from CNNE experience) that the vast majority of off-setters already have a lower carbon lifestyle than their demographic peers.
- When someone does buy an offset, that’s money they are not spending on buying something else – so if I decide to offset a flight, then I can’t use that money to buy, say, a pair of jeans and its associated ecological footprint.
- It is very difficult for one person to live a zero carbon life in a high carbon economy – we all gotta eat. Offsetting gives individuals to opportunity to do something beyond the levers of power immediately available to them. The only net-zero alternative to offsetting is insetting – planting trees on land you own – which is available to very few people or indeed organisations.
The only valid question to me is the robustness of each offset project. Would that project have happened without the offset cash? Will it deliver the carbon reduction it promises to? How is that regulated, particularly for long term projects such as tree-planting? Those questions clearly need answering in any carbon finance system whether for individuals, organisations or nations.
But we must not let perfect be the enemy of the good. If we can raise money to cut carbon via offsetting, why wouldn’t we do it?