Carbon Offsetting- Friend or Foe?

Dear Reader,

My intention here is to chat a little about carbon offsetting and clear up the polluted air surrounding the subject. It can be confusing and has had some bad press recently. I would like to discuss a bit about what it is, the aims of offsetting, the potential benefits and pitfalls and how and why you probably should do it, but only after some deep thought and changes to some habitual, carbon guzzling habits.

The Carbon Cycle

The carbon cycle is massively complex. I am no scientist but here is a basic outline so we can better understand why global warming is occurring and why the concept of carbon capture exists.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) via photosynthesis and solidify it into carbon compounds (basically sugars and other carbohydrates), releasing oxygen in the process and permitting life! The circle of life continues (thanks to The Lion King for explaining this so eloquently) as animals eat plants and other animals eat other animals, metabolising the carbon in this beautifully balanced cyclical process. Carbon that has avoided being eaten or being released as gas is stored in the ground, this is known as reduced (or organic) carbon. This is basically dead things from long ago, hence the term fossil fuels. These are then very slowly released back into the air and the process continues. It is a miraculous occurrence and, as far as we know, unique in the universe!

So, it is a natural process?

Yes, but we have taken on a dangerous lead role. We have become insanely efficient at extracting safely buried fossil fuels and burning them for energy, far more quickly than it would happen naturally, thus upsetting the balance and filling our atmosphere with excessive amounts of CO2. CO2 is a greenhouse gas (as are methane and nitrous oxide), meaning it absorbs heat energy. This is the cause of global warming. The oceans are absorbing huge amounts of this excess CO2, leading to ocean acidification. That’s also bad news for life on Earth.

We must remember that under our current societal (consumer capitalist) model, almost every single item we use likely burns fossil fuels at some stage of its production, not only the obvious ones like driving and flying. Even a cup of coffee has a carbon footprint. Do not give up coffee though, that will just make you sad.

A portion of our carbon footprints are out of our control. For example, the NHS, the emergency services, the creation of roads and other infrastructure, schools and the internet all emit carbon in various ways. These are part of the national carbon footprint and thus we all share a part of these emissions. Think of these as the background hum of your own footprint. These can and should be reduced but here we are predominantly focusing on personal carbon and the carbon of your (own) business. By all means petition for better systems and green energy nationally and internationally and take part in activism to push for the fundamental changes, but here I want to investigate whether we as individuals, small businesses and communities should offset our carbon footprints.

What is carbon offsetting?

Offsetting basically means participating in some form of programme or action that actively sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere and stores it (hopefully safely) somewhere else. This could slow down climate change if the activities are above and beyond what would be happening anyway and do not allow the justification of partaking in extra CO2 emitting activities. Decreasing the CO2 in the atmosphere could halt global warming, it is a necessary part of improving our planet’s current human induced state of suffering and ecological decline. However, it will only work in conjunction with massive overhauls of how we live, how modern society functions. Offsetting is by no means a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. It is, however, a piece of the puzzle that will move us toward improved ecological systems of being.

Technological vs Natural Offsets

There are two schools of carbon offsetting; the technological and the natural. Surprise surprise, I attend the natural school.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) captures CO2 (generally at the source) and pipes it elsewhere, thus locking it away and keeping it out of the atmosphere. Technologies generally rely on burying the captured CO2 underground in deep geological formations. This comes with countless unknown risks (it is similar to fracking) and the CO2 could leak back into the atmosphere. These technologies are hugely expensive to install and are generally part of a ‘business as usual’ scenario.

Efficient Stoves are another common offering on the carbon offset market. This involves replacing inefficient, CO2 emitting cook stoves (predominantly throughout rural Africa and India) with more efficient, newer stoves that emit less CO2. This gives the appearance that it is these types of activities that need to be made ‘greener’, deflecting the focus from us in the West who burn the vast majority of the fuels with our own inefficient, consumption-heavy, carbon-based lives. These rural communities in Africa and India have tiny carbon footprints and the blame should not be concentrated on their activities.

There are more nature-aligned methods that I believe could play a beneficial role in combatting global warming, when combined with the necessary changes to our production systems and consumption patterns.

Planting Trees is probably the best known. Trees are a ‘land sink’, which means that they take in CO2 during photosynthesis and store it in their trunks and in the soil. Deforestation is therefore a massive part of the problem. By planting trees, we can take CO2 out of the atmosphere and return it safely to nature. It can be done cheaply and on vast scales, and if done right has the potential to help fight climate change. Reforestation creates habitat for creatures and increases biodiversity, and it reduces flooding and erosion. A view of the forest or a walk amongst the trees has even been proven to decrease stress and depression.

When it comes to capturing and storing carbon, there is nowhere better than the soil. Grassland has the ability to capture even more carbon than trees and in cycling the carbon it can be safely stored in the soil. Restoring degraded lands and improving farming methods to build soil (regenerative agriculture) is an exciting and lesser known form of carbon capture that will create more resilient agricultural systems and allow us to move away from fertiliser-based farming that has devastating effects on the natural world and on our own health and wellbeing.

Behavioural Concerns

One of the major concerns with carbon offsetting is that it seems to lead to a justification of environmentally negative behaviours. If one is considering flying away on holiday but is concerned about the environmental costs of flying, carbon offsetting should not be the factor that rationalises the flight. Business as usual, teamed up with carbon offsetting will still lead us to catastrophic climate change. Personally, I believe we should work excessively hard to minimise our carbon footprints, then offset what we have emitted.

Short-term offset programmes

Another issue with the current offsetting model is the lack of guarantee that our CO2 is being captured and stored for a long enough period of time to truly offset our emissions. For example, some programmes will promise to plant a tree for you, on the premise that a tree will capture a given amount of carbon over its lifetime. Where is the assurance that this tree will live out its lifetime? That it cannot be chopped and sold? Any scheme offering such carbon capture must come with contracts to replace fallen trees and protect those that have been sold as carbon offsets. Regenerative agriculture may prove not only to provide us with good quality food and ecologically sound methods but, aligned with an assured and regulated carbon capture system, could mean farmers earn money via carbon offsets. This could be an incredible motivation to transition to sustainable techniques that would be of benefit to all living beings.

So, should we offset our carbon footprints? First and foremost, we should work hard to minimise them, to decrease the negative impacts of our lifestyle on the planet. Fly less, drive less, buy less stuff, consume less meat. Generally, try to live in a sustainable manner.

It is definitely worthwhile offsetting our inevitable carbon emissions, personally and for our businesses. If you cannot make major decreases in your footprint (i.e. you have no choice but to fly regularly for your work) then it is worth researching genuine and reliable offsetting programmes (Gold Standard is a good place to start) that commit to long-term and measured carbon capture (I would go for nature-based solutions) and sign up to them. At around £25 per ton of carbon offset, it is not prohibitively expensive. An economy class return flight from London to Madrid would only cost around £12 to offset.

Let us work toward more sustainable lives and look after our beautiful planet. Offsets will help and I recommend researching some reputable organisations and paying what you can into them to help reduce your carbon footprint and avert catastrophic climate change. Offsets do not justify unsustainable lives but do encourage beneficial projects that may be part of the solution.

Love Ben