WANT TO OFFSET? READ THIS FIRST

Is offsetting a good thing? Currently offered for flights especially, offsetting practices have been encouraged by companies to shift their lack of environmental progress onto consumers. Websites calculating your emissions can also prompt offsetting projects.

Offsetting assumes that “an emission reduction achieved in one location has the same beneficial effects as an emission reduction achieved anywhere else”. It seems that emissions are a zero-sum game. It often looks like a project to avoid further emissions, providing electricity instead of gas burners or absorbing emissions, planting a forest somewhere. Emissions somewhere aren’t quite equivalent to absorbing emissions somewhere else. For instance, local communities suffer from pollution created by the local factory or areas that have reached unsafe pollution levels that need to be balanced there and then. So does that make offsetting a good idea still?

Target the problem at the root

You should aim to produce as little emissions as you can. The rule for low waste living goes refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle. Offsetting is your recycle equivalent: It will deal with the remainder of your emissions but it is not a solution to a golden lifestyle. However, our current lifestyles are so far from being aligned to net-zero goals. If you are going to live your life and you want to have a positive impact then offsetting is a good thing for the remaining emissions that your lifestyle still produces.

More specifically, the offset projects have issues with them. Offsets are quite cheap. There is a large number of projects being offered for little demand for now so managing a non-sustainable lifestyle or business may look more appealing than making a change. Somehow, I do not grasp how this amount of projects can be sustained: at some point, the forest-friendly areas will be forested or land will be needed for another purpose and people will have access to electricity, even clean.

The carbon offset global market was $300 million in 2018 (the chocolate market in the UK is $3bn so it’s not much) and is expected to grow. Quite simply if companies aim to achieve net-zero and so do countries they will need to reduce their emissions and balance them with offsetting projects.

Some countries have put in place mandatory carbon markets for some sectors or industries. Voluntary offsets can be purchased for companies or customers wishing to achieve “net-zero”.

The quality however is important and hard to assess. Many certifications programmes have come out to provide transparency over the efficiency of the project. 2% only has been found effective at removing emissions. This does show very little effectiveness due to some old projects being on the market.

If you are going to fly or calculate your emissions from the past year, you may as well offset them. The price is low and some good will be done, just don’t expect it to be equivalent to not consuming anything or consuming poorly

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