climate change environment sustainability

A positive angle on carbon offsetting

Carbon offsetting is the practice of reducing CO2 emissions by carrying out carbon positive action somewhere else. I could pay a company to plant three trees on my behalf in Costa Rica, and by balancing their carbon absorbing capacity against my carbon emitting activity, the net result is a zero carbon footprint for me.

There was a lot of talk about offsetting a few years ago, much around the same time that there was a lot of talk about climate change, and then it all went quiet. Offsetting schemes are still running, but there was something of a backlash against them and the easy answer that was on offer.

That was largely deserved, in my mind. They were being advertised as exactly that, an easy answer. Offsets were presented as a solution to the ‘green guilt’ that we felt over our flying, driving, and consumerism. Tick the offset box when you buy your weekend flight to Paris, and the guilt is gone. It was this commodification of the environmental conscience that saw offsetting labelled as ‘indulgences’, and spawned the mock campaign Cheatneutral.

Despite those considerations, offsetting remains a useful tool in the box. There is a right time and place for it.

The key thing is that offsetting should not be used as a substitute for emissions reduction. It is better not to fly than to fly and offset. But if we have to fly every once in a while, then offsetting is better than not offsetting.

I’m not in favour of countries making extensive use of offsets to meet their long term emissions targets, partly because it’s impossible to certify the quantity of offsetting activities you’d need, and partly because it reduces the urgency of emissions cuts. But they could play a part in meeting short term targets, and the strategy could allow a certain percentage of cuts to be through offsets as a last resort.

For some businesses, offsetting could well be the only option for reducing environmental impact. Industries like steel or cement manufacture are hugely energy intensive and always will be, but we can’t do without them. The sector needs to pursue every possible efficiency measure and keep researching new techniques, but zero carbon will only be achieved through offsetting. In which case, carry on.

It applies to individuals too. I don’t drive or fly, and our household shopping and eating habits are pretty modest. Last year we cut our energy bills by at least a third. My carbon footprint is less than half the UK average, but is it is still well above the one-planet-living share of 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per person that should be a long term goal for each of us. The big outstanding contributor is my commute to London twice a week, but short of moving house or quitting my job, there’s little more I can do. There are always creative little things to try, but if I want to end this year genuinely carbon neutral, carbon offsetting is the only option.

In fact, it’s impossible to achieve a carbon neutral lifestyle in the UK without engaging in some carbon positive activity. If we factor in our individual share of our collective consumption – government services, streetlights, police cars, rubbish collection – it comes to about 1.5 tonnes each. Those are things I have very little influence over, but until all of them are carbon neutral, I will not be living sustainably.

So this year, I’ll be offsetting what remains of my carbon footprint after I’ve done everything I can to chip it down to size. How to do that is a different question – buy offsets, plant a tree myself in the local area, buy shares in solar tech? That’s a separate post, and if you have any suggestions, let me know.


  1. Ebico’s EquiClimate product seems an innovative way to invest in carbon reductions:

    This scheme buys EU ‘carbon credits’ in order to immediately retire them from the market, so that the total ‘permitted’ EU CO2 emissions are directly reduced by this amount.

    Like any offset scheme this one will have various potential pitfalls, but it seemed novel and interesting to me, and i’d be interested to know what others’ analysis of this might be.

    Incidentally Ebico as an energy provider also appeals to me because they are a non-profit organisation who aimto provide electricity and/or gas at an equitable price to low-income households. Again, (although i know this is somewhat off the current topic), i’d be interested in others’ views.

  2. I’ve reached a similar conclusion on offsetting. Have you done much work looking into the best options? If so, I’d love to hear about it (a future post?), since it can be bafflingly complex.

    “If we factor in our individual share of our collective consumption – government services, streetlights, police cars, rubbish collection – it comes to about 1.5 tonnes each.”
    I’ve been looking for reliable figures on this for the last the little while. The only claim I found with any credibility was a US study that found the figure there to be about 8 tonnes per capita. This seemed a surprisingly high percentage average carbon footprint of about 18 tonnes. What is the source of your 1.5 tonnes claim for the UK?

    ” the one-planet-living share of 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per person that should be a long term goal for each of us”
    Again, can you give a source for this? I thought it was closer to 1 tonne each. If we’re all aiming at 1.5 tonnes, then in a world of nine billion (being optimistic) by mid-century, we’re still looking at annual global emissions of 13.5 billion tonnes, which is only about a 60% reduction from current levels (or only about 40% reduction from the 1990 Kyoto baseline level). Don’t we need to get lower than that? I do think that indicating a long-term goal for personal carbon emissions is probably a good idea to give people an indication of the size of the challenge and so to encourage ambitious changes, but picking the target figure gets pretty complex. In any case, given that the UK average is still something like nine tonnes (and this doesn’t include international flights or imported goods), then whether we’re aiming for 1 or 1.5 is probably not the most pressing question for most people.

    1. The 1.5 tonnes figure is uncertain, and you’re more likely to turn up a lower figure. George Marshall says 1 tonne in his book Carbon Detox, for example. The Three Tonne Club says 1.1 and that government services account for around 8% of our footprint, again without a source.

      The reason I believe it’s higher is that I think people are taking the government’s own emissions figures of 64.7 million tonnes in 2008, and dividing that by the UK population to get 1 or 1.1 tonne each. What they’re missing is that the figure is only for central government. Factor in local government, and total government emissions are almost double that. (DEFRA’s most in-depth report is here: ) Local government emissions vary enormously and are almost impossible to compile, so for an accurate picture you’d need to get an estimate from the local council and add it to the central government figure. Central government emissions have fallen in the last couple of years, and they beat their 10:10 target and reduced them by 13% last year, so it’s a little lower than it was. So my 1.5 guess is a rough and conservative estimate.

      You’re right about 1 tonne being the long term goal. 1.5 applies at the world’s current population, 1 if you factor in the rise to 9 billion.

      And yes, I plan to look into offsetting in a little more detail, and that will be a future post. If you’ve got anything on it, let me know.

      1. Excellent – that’s very helpful. Sorry for delay in replying as I’ve been away. Hopefully, I’ll blog more about that soon (a very interesting conference). I don’t think we’re going to get to the Breathe weekend, which is sad, as we were very keen, but we now have guests staying with us and the logistics of getting there and back don’t work.

        Offsetting – I assume you saw a recent Guardian article which I thought had a very good overview? (At least in my limited understanding).

        My wife and I also started hosting a Carbon Conversations group last night and I’m looking forward to seeing how that develops and whether it might prove to be a useful resource.

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