When we hear the term ‘carbon offsets’, many of us think of tree planting…and greenwashing. These generalisations can undermine people’s perceptions and behaviour when it comes to offsetting, which is an important contributor to net zero. (See our Thought for more information on carbon neutrality versus net zero.)
What is carbon offsetting?
In simple terms, carbon offsetting is buying ‘credits to cancel out your emissions’ – which can cover greenhouse gases like methane as well as carbon dioxide. George Monbiot likened it to ‘Paying for our sins.’
As you may gather by Monbiot’s stance, offsetting on its own is not enough. To get to net zero, organisations need to focus on reducing direct and indirect emissions, both upstream and downstream (covering everything from purchased goods and services to franchises and investments), and offset any remaining emissions.
Rather than gamble with simply offsetting emissions, companies can follow some guidelines which will help with progress toward full decarbonisation:
- The starting point is an accurate carbon footprint which is complete as possible.
- Processes, behaviours, and systems will need to change, dramatically. A significant change is to switch to renewable energy and electric vehicles. Each sector will have its own wins, for example green concrete in construction. Another example, as we’ve all experienced in the past year and a half, is to stop flying or fly less rather than simply offsetting flights.
- Consider additionality: contribute to offsets which would not have happened otherwise. The Verra standard is a key methodology to prove additionality.
- Carbon offsets should be accountable, transparent and auditable. Use offsetting progammes certified by third-party organisations like Gold Standard or Verified Carbon Standard (VCS).
- Ensure that carbon offset projects support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Are trees the only way to offset?
Tree planting is probably the best-known way to offset greenhouse gases. Trees can absorb carbon using their trunks, branches, roots and leaves. They clean the air and also create an ecosystem within themselves.
Tree planting can:
- Be inexpensive and relatively quick and easy
- Support biodiversity
- Be easy to promote (‘One tree planted for every widget sold’)
- Support local economies: some communities rely on trees and access to wood for their own livelihood
On the flip side:
- Trees can take as much as 20 years to absorb the carbon dioxide promised by offsetting schemes, but we need carbon dioxide to be absorbed now
- Eventually, trees will give back that carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when they die and decompose — or are burnt
- Tree planting can disrupt local communities
- Trees might not be native species and planted as monocultures
What are other ways to offset greenhouse gases?
Growing algae and seaweed is another way to offset carbon dioxide. The ocean absorbs around 30% of carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere. Because it covers more surface area and grows faster, algae can consume more carbon dioxide than trees: in fact, ‘Algae, when used in conjunction with AI-powered bioreactors, is up to 400 times more efficient than a tree at removing CO2 from the atmosphere.’
Algae can produce biofuels (a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels), and it can also be used as an alternative material to plastic for packaging, and a replacement for foam, for anything from shoes to surfboads.
However, some of this ‘algae tech’ is still in its infancy, with a price tag for more research and large-scale implementation. Algae as a contributor to sustainability will require further investment and longer-term views.
A perhaps unexpected way to offset carbon is to support clean cooking with biogas. Unlike using an open fire burning biomass, using biogas (methane from cow dung) is clean, with no harmful smoke which causes deforestation and air pollution. There are positive social impacts as well: time saved not collecting wood allows young girls to go to school and women to run small businesses.
Wind power and solar installations provide multiple benefits going beyond renewable energy, like enhancing the quality of education, contributing to potable water supply infrastructure, empowering women, and safeguarding the environment.
Going beyond offsetting
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is another tool to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The first step is to capture the carbon dioxide produced by power generation or industrial activity, like steel or cement making. Then the carbon dioxide needs to be transported, and finally, stored deep underground. ‘Ironically, oil companies are some of the biggest practitioners of carbon capture today…’
Currently the cost of CCS is high, so we would hope to see this technology become more affordable, similar to the cost trajectory of lithium ion batteries which have fallen in cost by about 80% over the past decade.
If you would like to get your company started on the path to net zero, please do get in touch!
With research and writing contributed by Katia Smith.