What to do about Carbon Offsetting?

People who are trying to get to Net Zero carbon often ask me about offsetting.

This is the idea that once you’ve done everything you can to reduce your own carbon emissions, but still have some emissions left, you can achieve Net Zero by paying someone else to clean up their emissions instead, for example insulating homes, or planting trees.

Unfortunately offsetting is rife with problems, and these are often glossed over by wishful thinking and scams.

For example, trees are nice, and important to have more of them, but if it’s all you do, you’d need an impossibly large area of land.  The average personal carbon footprint in the UK is around 15 Tonnes CO2 pa per person. If you attempted to achieve Net Zero by tree planting alone, everyone would need to plant and tend a 100m x200m wood in perpetuity, while ensuring that as the trees matured, their carbon wasn’t lost to the atmosphere and new trees were planted.   Quite a challenge.

There’s also the “double counting” problem.  For example, if trees are planted, there could easily be multiple separate people who claim the credit, from the land-owner to the grant-givers.  National bodies want a slice of the action too. The National Farmers Union claims UK agriculture will be Net Zero by 2040, because of all the trees that will be planted in the UK.  Simultaneously the UK’s Committee on Climate Change is assuming that the UK’s tree planting will be available to offset UK aviation emissions.  The credit for the carbon could easily be claimed at least 10 times over, even if the scheme is well run.

But the fact remains, that its very hard to instantly, genuinely reduce our carbon emissions to zero, so what’s to do?

An increasingly popular solution is that, rather than looking to purchase carbon credits to “offset” our emissions, we think about it as a donation:  a short term fix, until we can genuinely achieve zero carbon emissions.  To do this we create a pot of money, calculated at a generous price of say £100 for every tonne of our remaining carbon emissions. Each year, we gift this to a worthwhile and interesting climate related project, while working out what further emissions reduction we can do ourselves.

I think this is a great idea, because by calculating our gift at perhaps 10-20 times more than the price of carbon credits, we avoid the double counting problem and help motivate our own emissions reductions. 

Also, by thinking of it as a gift we start focussing on how to get most impact from our money, rather than how to buy credits as cheaply as possible, and this change in attitude can be inspirational.