Carbon Offsetting: Does It Actually Work?

Carbon offsetting is an environmental strategy that has been around for decades. The idea behind it is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by funding projects that will help remove these gases from the air.

This sounds like a great idea, but does carbon offsetting actually work? In this blog post, we’ll take a look at what carbon offsetting really means and discuss some possible reasons why it might not be as effective as you think.

Let’s get started!

What does carbon offsetting mean?

Carbon offsets are credits generated when someone makes an investment in renewable energy or conservation efforts meant to mitigate climate change. For example, if someone invests in wind power instead of coal-fired electricity production, they generate carbon offsets.

This means that the carbon dioxide pollution produced from their energy use is offset by the reduced emissions of a wind farm somewhere else (the “offset”).

The idea behind carbon offsets is simple – if everyone contributes, we can slow down climate change and reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere.

If someone releases more CO₂ than they can reduce themselves, then someone else can reduce their CO₂ emissions by the same amount to make up for it.

What are the common criticisms of carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is a powerful tool for conserving the environment and mitigating climate change. However, it’s not without its drawbacks, and there are some common criticisms of the effectiveness of carbon offsets.

First, they don’t account for all types of greenhouse gases. Carbon offsetting focuses on reducing CO₂ emissions, but it doesn’t address other forms of pollution that contribute to climate change (like methane or nitrous oxide).

Second, carbon offsets don’t represent a permanent change in behavior. Offsets are great for reducing the effects of climate change as it exists today, but they do nothing to reduce future emissions. Because of this, we will need more and more offsets each year just to keep up with pollution rates that continue to grow.

In short, carbon offsets can be used as a “license to pollute”, in that they can alleviate a guilty conscience, or bad publicity if the offender is a company, while the rate of emissions keeps increasing along with climate change.

Third (and probably most importantly), offsets are often expensive and cost-prohibitive. In order to be effective, carbon offsetting requires a significant amount of investment capital – something that is out of reach for communities in developing countries or people who can’t afford it on an individual basis.

This means that wealthier nations (and richer individuals) can continue to produce more emissions (and therefore offsets) than poorer nations or individuals. While the projects that are certified by the Gold Standard aims to promote climate justice, most offsets on the market today are not Gold Standard certified.

All in all, carbon offsetting is a great way to slow down climate change and reduce greenhouse gas concentrations – but it’s not perfect.

The benefits of carbon offsetting

There are a lot of different ways to reduce our impact on the environment and slow down climate change, but carbon offsetting is probably one of the most effective.

Carbon offsets address emissions here and now, as they occur in real time – something that can’t be done with other strategies alone, like recycling, planting trees, or reducing consumption patterns. As long as we keep investing in carbon offsetting, we can continue to reduce our output of greenhouse gases.

Despite the fact that clean energy is increasing in popularity, there is still a significant gap to fill to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius.

Funding in wind turbines and solar farms are common ways of offsetting, as they are generally ideal projects to fund due to the large amount of CO₂ that they reduce. Because the CO₂ reductions of renewable energy sources are permanent, carbon offsetting can be a particularly effective tool to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels.

Many offsetting projects are also contributing to the achievement of sustainable development goals – such as access to energy and water, new employment opportunities, and improved health – and has a strong ability to reduce global poverty.

Tree planting versus carbon offsetting

Tree planting is usually seen as an alternative to offsetting, but it can also be seen as an offset, in a way, because the trees are not just producing oxygen, they’re also absorbing a certain amount of carbon dioxide that would otherwise exist.

The main differences between offsetting via emissions trading and by planting trees is how much money you’re spending on each option and when the effect comes. A carbon offset that is based on emissions trading is fairly expensive but the effects are immediate. The effect is permanent, i.e. a reduction of 1 kilogram CO₂ today will reduce the same amount every year for the foreseeable future, but it doesn’t compound.

Planting a tree, on the other hand, is very affordable. A single tree can be planted for as little as one or two dollars (or euros). Mature trees can absorb up to about 48 pounds (22 kilograms) of CO₂ per year. That makes them the most cost-effective weapons against climate change. The problem is that it takes a very long time for trees to mature.

Just like humans emit different amounts CO₂ around the globe, trees can absorb different amounts, and similarly to humans, and they also age differently. Most species need 10 or more years to fully mature, and to reach their potential. This means that planting a tree today to offset your emissions will reduce emissions with an equal amount a decade from now – at best.

Here and now, that CO₂ is still released into the atmosphere. So, is tree planting just a huge IOU for the future? No, not at all. Deforestation is a big problem, and has historically been a strong contributing factor for the climate change we’re experiencing today. It’s crucial that we plant trees today to avoid repeating the same mistakes tomorrow.

How to do carbon offsetting the right way

Emissions trading of carbon offsets are expensive but have strong and immediate effects. Tree planting is an excellent, affordable way to slowly reduce greenhouse gases and counteract climate change. But the effects are far into the future, at which point it’ll be too late.

By 2030, global net human-caused CO2 emissions would need to be reduced by around 45% from 2010 levels to stop climate change, according to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That means that we have less than a decade to stop climate change, and it’s already too late to reverse its effects.

To effectively combat climate change, we need to employ a combination of both offsetting methods. We need to fund sustainable projects through carbon offsets that reduces CO₂ today, while also planting trees to reduce the CO₂ we’ll emit tomorrow.

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