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.