By Anni Myllymaäki

Edited by Alexia Cosmatchi

As the global climate crisis worsens, increasing attention is being paid to carbon footprints. This refers to all carbon dioxide emissions related to individuals’ or firms’ activities. Footprints include everything from the direct emissions of fuel burning in manufacturing to the emissions caused by radiators. They are a way to quantify one’s impact on the environment and there is constant demand for ways to reduce them. One of the possible solutions is carbon offsets. Offsets are units of carbon removed from the atmosphere, which polluting firms and individuals can buy, therefore neutralising their emissions. The carbon offset market is projected to be worth up to $50 billion by 2030, so, are they a viable measure against global warming?

First, a further explanation of how offsets work. There are organisations/firms that sell carbon credits, which correspond to an amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere. The amount varies, as buyers can usually input how much carbon they wish to offset. The offsetting can be done, for example, by planting trees (removes carbon) or by keeping trees that would have otherwise been cut down (avoids adding carbon). The aim of the credit is to neutralise the negative effects of carbon emissions. After this, the credits are no longer usable. Other projects include investing in renewable energy, waste management or establishing recycling projects.

Illustration by Malvina Lilieholm

Based on this, offsets seem great, and they do have several benefits. Firstly, they get highly polluting industries, such as oil and aviation, to address their emissions. For example, oil giant Shell has invested $26 million in reforestation and preservation of natural areas. This shows how offsets can help the environment in several ways. Keeping forests from being cut reduce carbon in the atmosphere and maintain biodiversity in the area. Tree planting, one of the most popular offsets, is quick and cheap, so it can be faster than industry-wide change. The fact that offsets are tradeable may encourage investment since offset providers could make a profit (though many invest it into further environmental protection). Of course, credits must be certified by licenced third parties, such as the Verified Carbon Standard, to be reliable. Yet, if they are certified, they help the environment in many ways, efficiently and even provide profits. It seems like a win-win solution, and firms parade it as such, but the story is unfortunately not as simple as that.

One common criticism is that, amid worsening climate change, offsets halt bigger change. Offsets can also decrease firms’ motivation to change their operational models, since they can buy their way out of consequences. Money spent on offsets could have been spent on renewable energy, et cetera. Not only this, but they have problems in the way they fundamentally work. Firstly, it is difficult to prove that a project would not have been done without the purchase of a credit. For example, how can we say for sure that a wind farm would not have been made without the credit, or that an area of forest would have been cut down? Additionally, it is difficult to quantify the effect of the credit. Creating more efficient waste management systems will be beneficial to the environment, but exactly how much carbon they will save can be hard to estimate, and still harder to divide into sellable portions.

Even if the offset removes carbon, the effect’s permanence is another issue. Take tree planting. As trees grow, they capture carbon, which they hold until their death, and upon decaying most of the carbon resettles into the ground. The problem is that, often, trees planted/saved as offsets are cut down a few years later, which releases the carbon. So, the offset only delays the emission, instead of preventing it. Even if trees are saved in one area, or one area moves to renewable energy, the harmful operation can always just move, which means that the emissions have not been reduced, their location has only been changed. A credit may also have been resold as another offset despite already being one, or double-counted, so emitting additional carbon. One problem specific to trees is that offsets are usually done by planting fast-growing trees like oak. However, planting only a single variety, especially in an area which did not have them before, harms biodiversity. A solution to this is natural reforesting, letting trees grow themselves, but it takes longer. The main difficulty of offsets is for verifying third parties to see whether projects are long-term, genuinely avoid or remove emissions, and do not sell more credits than the amount of carbon they are offsetting. According to a 2016 EU study, in 85% of the projects they evaluated, the purchased offsets could not be seen as having an additional reducing effect on carbon emissions, and many projects overestimated their effects.

To conclude, carbon offsets are not an absolute good or evil. On one hand, the way they are currently managed, especially the lack of regulations and effective monitoring, means that many projects have little real effect on emissions. Yet, we are at a point where just reducing emissions is not enough and we need to both reduce carbon and remove some from the atmosphere. Offsets cannot fix the issue on their own, but they can be part of a move toward a safer, more stable world, along with renewable energy, more focus on public transport, reducing consumption, reducing waste and other measures. Regarding firms purchasing offsets, stricter regulations should be set to limit the amount of emissions allowed, with harsher punishments. Offset projects themselves need more regulations, to make sure they have an effect, but this will be a lengthy process. The key takeaway is that anybody who wishes to purchase offsets should do research on the available platforms, to make sure they are legitimate. Another thing to remember is that addressing the climate crisis needs to have several measures, because the issue is too large, too far-reaching, to not have everybody participate in helping.

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