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Carbon Offsetting may be Worsening the Climate Crisis

Voluntary carbon offsetting has exploded into an industry worth more than $2bn per year and may grow to $40bn per year by 2030. But does it actually make a difference?

The premise of carbon offsetting is that you can pay your way out of your carbon emissions by funding projects around the world that plant trees, protect forests, or fund green energy. In theory, it seems pretty sensible, but the reality falls far short of the promise.

A recent investigation by the Guardian discovered that carbon offsets used by several big businesses (including Disney and Shell) have no worth, and may in fact make climate change worse. At the heart of this conclusion, is a lack of regulation and scientific credibility in carbon offsetting. Of the many offsetting projects investigated, only a handful showed any evidence of reducing deforestation. In the remaining cases, the threat of deforestation had been grossly inflated (by around 400%) in order to sell offsets and create the illusion of legitimacy. One project was even found to be guilty of human rights violations – a problem reported with other offsetting projects too.

But Surely Tree Planting is Climate Friendly?

Tree planting may sound like a good idea, but the value of such projects varies immensely. Many carbon offsetting projects focus on planting non-native monocultures. The climate crisis and ecological breakdown are inherently linked, which means that when tackling one, the other needs to be taken into account. Planting non-native monocultures that do not support native biodiversity doesn’t have a great deal of value, though replacing those forests with native trees can increase local biodiversity by as much as 78%.

Even when native trees are planted, mistakes are often made, and this was highlighted by a disastrous tree-planting initiative in Turkey in 2019. It was heralded as being the most ambitious tree-planting project to-date, and 11 million trees were planted. A year later, the mortality rate for the saplings was over 90% due to poor choice of planting locations, and trees being planted at the wrong time of the year.

Other tree-planting projects have led to degradation of grassland ecosystems which function as highly effective carbon-sinks, supporting a wide array of biodiversity. Despite the mounting evidence against such schemes, they continue to be marketed as a solution to climate change, and at the crux of this claim, is misinformation.

Misleading Mathematics

If your carbon footprint for a flight is 1 tonne, then buying 1 tonne of offsets would seem to cancel out your flight. Unfortunately, it’s not as clear cut as this. Let’s say I pay for a solar panel in a village in Africa through an offsetting scheme in order to replace one petrol-powered generator. There is no guarantee that this will be the result, particularly given how unregulated carbon-offsetting is. The owner of the solar panel may decide to use both panel and generator, and take payments from people who need to charge cell phones and radios (a common business in many African countries). The owner then uses the payments to buy a motorbike, so the carbon footprint of my flight has actually increased, not decreased. This is one of the key problems with offsetting – long term outcomes are extremely hard to predict or guarantee.

Worse still, many offsetting organisations take payments for projects that would have happened anyway. A study of 1,350 wind farm offsetting projects in India showed that at least 52% would have been built anyway, even without offsetting payments. In 2020, JP Morgan proudly announced that they had achieved 'net zero' through the purchase of $1mn in offset credits to protect a forest from deforestation. As it turned out, the forest was already protected and faced no threat of deforestation whatsoever.

So What’s the Solution?

Offsetting schemes are typically unregulated, and thus far, the science to their effectiveness is pretty discouraging, so relying on them as any kind of solution to climate change is at best profoundly unwise, and at worst, extremely dangerous. The solution to climate change remains the same as it always has – reduce carbon emissions rapidly, and permanently. Sadly, for the time-being, carbon offsetting continues to act as a licence to carry on polluting.

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