Carbon Offsetting – Right or Wrong?

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The Spekboom plant has enormous carbon-storing capabilities. Its capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions is compared to that of moist, subtropical forest. 

Does speeding while driving absolve you from the offence as long as you pay your speeding tickets dutifully thus admitting your wrongdoing?

Likewise with carbon offsetting.

carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for or to offset an emission made elsewhere.

Carbon offsetting sounds like the right thing to do. Many governments and corporations are using carbon offsets to combat global warming.   The most common way of carbon offsetting is by funding a beneficial environmental work from investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy to planting forests. Carbon offsetting can really make a difference, especially if a genuine environmental project that would not have otherwise happened was funded. For example a wind-energy project that would not otherwise have been financially viable will add to the overall supply of renewable energy, thus reducing the amount of fossil fuels consumed in future.  And if the project takes place in developing countries, there can be other resulting benefits such as employment, health and poverty eradication.

Carbon offsetting may seem the right thing to do, but many issues remain unresolved:

  • Does the one tonne of ‘carbon repair’ exactly match the one tonne of ‘carbon damage’?
  • Carbon offsetting avoids dealing with the real problem, that is the damage caused by environmentally irresponsible behaviour in the first place. It is like paying to absolve yourself from the harm you are causing.
  • How do you quantify the benefits of carbon offsetting when you plant trees. How much carbon dioxide will they remove in their lifetime? And even if they do make up for the carbon damage, it will be a long time in the future to repay for a current damage.
  • If the projects funded in the name of carbon offsetting, would have happened anyway, no additional benefit has been provided but damage has been done.

Many governments and corporations are using carbon offsets to try and make ‘amends’ instead of stopping their environmentally harmful behaviour.

Following the analogy of speed driving - wouldn’t it be more legally and morally right to instead change your driving habits and drive safely within the speed limits?

The way forward....
We all  - from government, corporation to individuals – should reduce our emissions first and only then consider offsetting the emissions that we cannot reduce as a last resort.  Examples of ‘green’ practices that can help to reduce emissions are reducing the number of times we fly and drive, opting for energy efficient appliances and lighting, etc.