Will carbon offsetting really make a difference?
Updated: May 25
Everyone working in the climate change movement can agree on one thing: we need to reduce (and fast!) carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are being emitted in vast quantities in order to stop climate change.
But past that, there are many rabbit holes to dive into and terms that can be confusing even to those already in the field. Carbon offsets have been gaining visibility, but how they actually work (and whether they’re good or not!) remains a mystery to many. Read below to find out more about what exactly carbon offsetting entails and how to pick the right offsets, the pros and cons, and a planet-friendly alternative.
What is carbon offsetting and how does it work?
Carbon offsetting is the act of reducing emissions on behalf of another person or another company and creating a ‘credit’ (usually in tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions) based on this action.
Two main categories - offsets that reduce emissions, and offsets that sequester (‘absorb’) emissions, for example - offsets based on renewable energy reduce emissions by preventing the need to burn fossil fuels, whilst offsets based on forest conservation or tree planting result in CO2 being absorbed and stored by trees.
Carbon offsetting absolutely has its place, but if you’re looking to take action, it’s not necessarily the best place to start and if you’re looking to offset emissions for a larger business, it might not help the planet as much as you’d think. Check out the Capture list of pros and cons for carbon offsetting!
Pro: Carbon offsetting is fairly affordable, and accessible
Carbon offsetting can be incredibly inexpensive when compared to other substantial planet-friendly measures such as switching your home heating system from oil/gas to electricity. For people who can’t afford to make major changes to curb lifestyle emissions in the short term, carbon offsets can help minimize their impact on the planet.
Pro: If done correctly, carbon offsetting can be helpful
If you’ve decided to purchase carbon offsets, using verified projects is necessary to make sure that things are done properly. In a larger example, the Vatican accepted the offer of the company KlimaFa to offset the entirety of the Holy See’s carbon emissions in 2007 by planting millions of trees in forests in Hungary. KlimaFa abruptly shut down at the end of the year without planting a single tree, and the Vatican’s emissions remained unchanged.
Capture uses carbon offsetting programs that have been verified by Gold Standard and the American Carbon Registry to avoid any potential wrong-doing. If you’re looking to offset, check out their projects via the free CO2 tracking app. If you’re still feeling lost, here are some other verified options.
Con: It can be a good opt-out for action
For industries that are trickier to decarbonise such as concrete and steel production or aviation, carbon offsetting does provide a tangible way to balance out emissions. However, it can also be a way for companies to hide behind the guise of ‘working on climate policies’ while actually doing little to nothing to reduce their own emissions (also known as ‘predatory delay.) Offsets can’t take the place of stopping the industrial use of fossil fuels and wide-scale practices like deforestation and heavy pesticide and fertilizer use altogether.
Con: Carbon offsetting is not looking at the larger picture
With just 100 companies linked to 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, carbon offsets for large organisations can be a distraction from the root cause of the problem. For ‘super emitter’ companies, which include Shell, ExxonMobile, and BP, if they are not committed to stopping their use of fossil fuels completely then there’s little opportunity to fight climate change regardless of whether they purchase carbon offsets or not. We have to divest from fossil fuels completely instead of finding workarounds. Holding these companies accountable to make massive systematic changes will be crucial in order to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement.
Real emission reduction is the best alternative to carbon offsetting!
So what are the alternatives? While Capture does offer the option of verifiable carbon offsetting, our main focus is on lifestyle emissions reductions as step 1 (that’s why we built a tracker!). By understanding and reducing emissions from our diet and transportation choices (more categories coming soon), we can fight back against climate change in our daily lives, be empowered to make more planet-friendly decisions, and focus our attention on putting pressure on large companies and our governments to make large scale changes our planet desperately needs.
Feeling inspired? Looking for a place to help you understand and reduce lifestyle-based emissions? Join us in taking part in the#CaptureChallenge for the month of April on Instagram and shrink your carbon footprint by 7.6% by tracking your diet and transportation choices.