Is CO2 offsetting unsustainable?

12th April 2012

H2h carbon offsetting

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Chris Reynolds and Wendy Buckley debate the environmental value of companies claiming the carbon reductions of others

Chris Reynolds

IEMA Fellow and business adviser on climate change and competitiveness

While carbon offsetting is becoming an increasingly popular way to cut emissions, questions remain over whether it really is effective in achieving genuine reductions. This is because offsetting doesn’t reduce our emissions at all, it simply lowers someone else’s, and that should be their responsibility.

Are we not simply muddying the waters as to which activities are causing emissions and then justifying business-as-usual activities that may not be sustainable?

To use an analogy, let’s say I’ve decided to be self-sufficient, using my garden to feed my family. I intend to grow all my own food, but find at harvest time I don’t have enough.

I look in my neighbour’s garden and see he has lots of fruit trees and no family to support. So, I put my hand through the fence and help myself to the low-hanging fruit next door. I get through the year claiming to be self-sufficient and declare my model for feeding the family is sustainable, but it isn’t: I have simply offset my shortfall with my neighbour’s excess.

In the world of personal carbon offsets we do this all the time. We pay to offset emissions from flights, for example, and avoid considering whether such activity is sustainable. Offsetting can therefore discourage the consumer from making beneficial carbon choices.

Other concerns around offsetting include:

  • the robustness of the accounting methods used;
  • the acceptability of using an initial, possibly exaggerated, benchmark to measure offset savings;
  • the variability of carbon savings and the use of averaging when offsets are sold; and
  • its value hinges on the balance of carbon savings generated elsewhere compared with those missed by avoiding actions and behaviours at home.

There’s also an ethical argument; assuming we will one day move to global CO₂ reduction targets, should an organisation in one country really be claiming the low-cost emissions savings of another in a different country?

It’s odd that we can move our manufacturing out of Europe and use the CO₂ savings to meet our targets, but still consume the embodied carbon of the same goods as imports, then claim further savings through offsets.

It would be better to reduce our emissions to the lowest possible level, and then be honest about what remains. If this is above what is sustainable then perhaps we should abstain from those activities, rather than hiding them under a veil of offsetting and neutrality.

There’s no shame in accepting we cause CO₂ emissions, but to be sustainable we need transparent accounting for carbon. This means scientific analysis based on a life-cycle approach, product footprinting and practical actions; it doesn’t mean confusing the picture by taking someone else’s low-hanging fruit.

Dr Wendy Buckley

Director of Carbon Footprint, a carbon management consultancy

A growing number of FTSE 100 companies are making commitments to be carbon neutral – six have already done so and at least 20 more are on their way. They are achieving it through a combination of their own carbon reductions and robust offsets.

The reality is that very few businesses can achieve carbon neutrality by reducing their own emissions to zero, even with the best renewable technologies and supply-chain efforts deployed. Offsets offer a pragmatic and rapid way to achieve neutrality across individual products or services or even whole organisations.

But offsets are not simply about achieving neutrality, they are an integral part of carbon management. Long gone are the days of firms simply offsetting their emissions alongside their guilt.

Offsetting must be used only as part of an organisation’s overall carbon strategy, which involves a cyclical process of robust carbon footprint assessment and reduction targets. Offsets are then used to remove the firm’s residual carbon footprint, which should be diminishing year by year.

While critics question the quality of offsets, the reality of the situation is that the market is highly regulated. Rigorous international standards, such as the verified carbon standard and the certified emission reduction scheme, provide businesses and consumers with assurance that the savings being made are new, permanent and measurable.

BSI’s publicly available specification PAS 2060, which provides a framework for demonstrating carbon neutrality, includes standards for offsetting. Along with the many excellent and free online tools available, which use internationally accepted methodologies and conversion metrics to help businesses evaluate their CO₂ emissions, there is no excuse for organisations to be offsetting their carbon against inaccurate calculations.

Aside from the obvious carbon savings made through offsets, the approach can have other, more broadly positive impacts. Investing in offsets often helps firms to place a value on carbon.

For example, many organisations employ internal schemes that charge back the cost of offsetting to the emitting function, putting a tangible value on CO₂. Forward-thinking firms use this as a means of engaging staff with the true costs of their choices and to instigate behavioural change. Some companies also visit their offsetting projects and get involved with them, which further helps staff buy-in.

Furthermore, offset projects often have strong socioeconomic dimensions, with many helping communities in developing nations – supporting renewable energy or avoiding deforestation, for example. These projects would not have been possible, nor the positive outcomes achieved, without the creation and sale of carbon credits to fund them.


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