Opinion: are all carbon offsets created equal?
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Josie shares her thoughts on carbon offsetting and her decision to purchase offsets through tree-planting projects...
Carbon offsetting is an evolving industry. Like many environmental efforts, it is not without it's flaws and criticisms - even though a lot has improved in the past years.
Let's start by clarifying what we mean when we talk about carbon offsets. Individuals can offset their CO2 emissions on the voluntary market through the purchase of carbon credits. GoldStandard, one of the leading certifiers of carbon credits, describes them as follows:
"A carbon credit is a financial unit of measurement that allows organisations and individuals to support the transition to a low carbon future. Each carbon credit represents the removal of one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) from the atmosphere"
CO2 is counted as removed in two basic ways:
1. Preventing CO2 emissions from being released in a 'business as usual scenario', for example, through providing families with fuel-efficient cooking stoves, or supporting a large solar power project that will prevent a coal-power plant from being built
2. Absorbing ('sequestering') CO2 from the air and safely storing it, for example, through forestry-based projects that ensure that areas of land are planted with trees and shrubs that will effectively sequester CO2
As you can imagine, there's a huge amount of variance in specific project categories, running in vastly differing environments. Yes, there have been some cases in the past of projects being mismanaged. That's where strict verifiers such as GoldStandard come in... GoldStandard 'ensures that all its projects meet robust and stringent methodology requirements for sustainable development in the local area.' Providing '...rigorous third party monitoring, reporting and verification procedures.'
One of the most important concepts in carbon offsetting via credits is the principle of additionality. For a carbon credit to qualify as a viable way of offsetting CO2, the CO2 reductions need to come from a project that would not have usually happened.
Although GoldStandard and other credible offsetting verifiers do their very best to ensure that the credits they are issuing are from CO2 reduction projects that would not have happened without credit purchases, it's always going to be tricky to prove exactly that. Economic development and mass-scale actions at government levels have seen huge investments in solar energy and energy efficiency projects, even tree planting.
We all have a choice in our offsetting projects - and as long as you are purchasing your offsets from credible verifiers (those are the only types we have available via the Capture app anyway), you should rest easy in the knowledge that the CO2 removal projects you are choosing have been stringently checked...
However, there is of course a level of personal choice and preference to it, and for me - I always try to look out for the projects that I believe would have very likely not happened if it was not for my offsetting purchase. These for me, right now, are forestry planting credits - there is little incentive for a hardworking subsistence farmer to take time out of their day to purchase seedlings and plant trees alongside their crops, or on disused land. Whereas solar panels perhaps make more economic sense.
I've spoken to a number of climate change and offsetting experts, and everyone does have a slightly different view on the matter. But what we all agree on is that it's all about reducing emissions as much as possible - then ensuring the emissions we can't reduce are removed... and well, there are different ways of removing emissions.
At Capture, we'd like to make sure our users can have the choice to remove emissions in one of four ways:
1. The purchase of carbon credits through GoldStandard-verified renewable energy projects
2. The purchase of carbon credits through VCS-verified forest planting projects
3. The purchase of carbon credits through GoldStandard-verified forest conservation projects
4. The purchase of direct-air-capture guarantees, that ensure CO2 emissions are removed from the air and stored safely and permanently as stone underground (although we do have to mention that prices are still unfortunately much much higher for this option!)
What are your thoughts? What would be your choice? Looking forward to continuing the discussions.
Many thanks for reading,