With recent abnormal heatwaves affecting swathes of the planet, we’ve again been given a stark reminder that we are in the midst of a climate change emergency.
Even if we, as individuals, do our best to lessen our carbon footprint, living in a capitalist society means it just isn’t enough. No matter how many bottles we recycle, or plugs we switch off, it barely makes a dent in the wake of corporations releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
Many businesses big and small try and mitigate any damage to the earth by offsetting their emissions, through methods such as reforestation, and conservation efforts both at home and further afield, in a bid to reduce their carbon output.
However, whilst seen by some as a step forward in the realms of corporate responsibility and a vital tool in fighting climate change in a capitalist world, others argue that offsetting is largely tokenistic and merely positive PR – as opposed to making a tangible difference. And can sometimes cause more damage than it fixes. Without businesses pledging to go fully carbon neutral you could argue it’s all for naught, but surely even the bare minimum is better than doing nothing at all?
We invited two experts to discuss the pros and cons of offsetting. So let’s talk; offsetting.
Jack Atkins, Michael Cunningham & Paul de Zylva
Carbon offsetting to us is a bit of a dirty word. We really wish it didn’t have to exist, and that’s so we could live in this world and have a lovely fair society and a community which lives sustainably within its perimeters.
But although people are using carbon offsetting as a PR and a box ticking exercise, hopefully through doing that they will come to understand what their carbon footprint is, what the carbon that they cannot get rid of is, and how that could amount to hundreds or thousands of tonnes every year. This leads into understanding how much carbon could cost and therefore, how much of a detrimental effect companies are having on the world, but also on their shareholders profits.
It’s kind of a way to lead a horse to water and hopefully instead of just throwing money at it, as ‘carbon credits’ become more expensive, people will really result in reducing their carbon footprint.
We work with businesses and we take them on a journey. Sometimes they haven’t done a carbon audit, and that’s fine. We’ll just start them on a journey of planting some trees – but we only work with people who will commit to a sustainability policy and try and reduce their carbon footprint in many other ways. As time goes on, they will then eventually do a carbon audit or they audit a certain part of their business.
So we’re creating habitats and creating jobs and creating areas for people to be mindful in for their mental health. It’s also about the biodiversity crisis, and making sure in the UK we’ve got lovely diverse habitats, so that we’re not planting monoculture crops and acidifying the soil. You know, there’s lots of things we won’t do, and we have companies that we will not work with, because it’s obvious that they’re not doing it for the right reasons.
Basically, we would prefer for us not to exist, that’s what we want. We want people – individuals and businesses – to get to a point where they don’t have to plant trees to balance their carbon footprint. We want them to just want to plant trees for biodiversity and for a good temperate climate without having this ten-year or six-year time stamp, because trees obviously take many years to grow.
What we hope to do is explain to people how much carbon there is in a tree, how much carbon you emit every year of your life – ie; nine tonnes of carbon against one tonne for a tree. Then that relates back to them. And then they do the maths and say “well hang on there’s six or seven million people in the UK. How are we going to plant that many trees every year? We haven’t got enough space”. Exactly. You’re finally thinking about that, maybe you should reduce your carbon footprint. So it’s about explaining to everyone in the workplace and boards of directors, doing impact assessments for companies and saying “it’s not enough, but it’s a good start.”
Michael Cunningham is the director of 9 Trees Carbon Offsetting CIC
It’s easy to see why offsetting has become an attractive prospect to some businesses. On paper, it certainly sounds like a good idea. Operate in a difficult-to-decarbonise industry? Plant a tree or fund a renewable energy project in another country, and rest assured that you’re minimising your environmental impact. But the reality is not that straightforward.
That’s because, on the whole, offsetting is a superficial idea. For just a modest sum of money, it allows businesses to keep on polluting in the hope that emissions savings will be made somewhere else, by someone else. Yet the emerging offsets market remains an unregulated wild west, where schemes with dubious benefits and vague standards entice businesses with their bold environmental claims.
Knowing just how drastically every sector of society must change if we’re to avert the worst of climate breakdown, the deep emissions cuts required of all businesses cannot simply be outsourced.
Everyone from airlines to big sporting event organisers are increasingly claiming commitment to sustainable business practices on the basis of the offsets they pay for. But this totally fails to tackle the problem of emissions at source and absolves companies of their responsibility to slash the carbon they emit through inefficient, or outdated processes.
That’s not to say there aren’t some schemes which are genuine, beneficial for the planet and in need of legitimate funding. For example, there are hundreds of projects that seek to protect nature, where swathes of land are being bought up to create nature reserves and sanctuaries for endangered species such as orangutan. Elsewhere, damaged and depleted coastal mangroves are being restored, which are not only vital carbon sinks but also help to prevent the worst effects of storms and can help fish stocks to recover which ensures that local communities have access to a reliable food source.
Many projects are also buying land to plant new forests, which in theory, will store carbon as they grow. This has become one of the most prolific offset sectors, and while we certainly need to restore the world’s forests, tree-planting is not the silver bullet it’s often made out to be.
Behind the green image lies a murky offsetting underworld, where land is being grabbed from indigenous communities and turned into plantations of forestry monocrop – or in other words, schemes where a single tree species is planted repeatedly. When a thriving ecosystem requires a diverse and abundant array of plant and animal species, this is clearly not the answer.
And tree-planting schemes only work where trees can survive long enough to actually absorb a decent amount of carbon. This is becoming increasingly difficult as the world faces ever more extreme weather, and trees are lost to wildfires and storms.
There is a place for a small amount of offsetting in a well-regulated market, but unfortunately that’s not what we have. It also has to be the last resort – the solution in the most exceptional circumstances where emissions cannot be slashed. Forward-thinking businesses will see that the future of our world depends on transformative climate action now, and that any attempts to delay this through dodgy offsetting schemes are simply a bad investment.
Paul de Zylva is senior sustainability analyst at Friends of the Earth