Is Carbon Offset Legit?

Carbon offsetting is an internationally recognised way undertaken by many businesses to take responsibility for their carbon footprint and portray themselves as environmentally responsible corporations to their investors and customers.

A 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 - balancing carbon-emitting activities with carbon-reducing activities. No business can operate without a carbon footprint and carbon offsetting sounds like the right thing to do. But as in any practice, there are the ‘rogues’ and there are the ‘good guys’.

There are responsible businesses who try their best to first reduce their carbon footprint and then offset the remaining unavoidable emissions. 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.

Likewise, there are many businesses that are using carbon offsets to try and make ‘amends’ instead of stopping their environmentally harmful behaviour in the first place.  Such businesses are often accused of ‘dodgy accounting’ and ‘greenwashing’. In fact, offsetting could well be an unwelcome distraction from the real business of cutting emission in the first place.

Is Carbon Offset Legit?

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 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.

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?

Businesses need to first reduce their emissions and only then consider offsetting unavoidable emissions as a last resort. To do this effectively they need to know the carbon footprint of the activity the need to offset.