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Understanding carbon offsetting

Written by
Poppy Stringer
6
min read
August 17, 2023

As the world grapples with the pressing issue of climate change, various strategies have emerged to mitigate the carbon emissions contributing to this global challenge. One such strategy that we are sure you have heard thrown around before is carbon offsetting, which has gained both popularity and controversy and is very misunderstood 

In this blog, we will 

  1. Take a deep dive into the concept of carbon offsetting 
  2. Examine the mechanics of how it operates
  3. Explore the positive aspects
  4. And the limitations 
  5. Explain some key definitions
  6. Give you advice on how to ensure your efforts are effective and meaningful

What is Carbon Offsetting? 

Carbon offsetting is a bit like a CO2 balancing act. Once you know your carbon footprint, we all need to try and avoid and reduce it.However, the reality is that it’s impossible to get it to zero.

Let’s simplify it. You usually drive to work and decide instead to walk. You go from creating c250g per mile to 18g per mile. A huge reduction. But there’s still a footprint. 

The idea with offetting is to counter the carbon dioxide released in one spot by investing in things that soak up or cut down the same amount of CO2.

Imagine it as an effort to level the playing field and minimize our impact on the planet. These "offset projects" could be anything from planting more trees, setting up renewable energy sources, switching to more renewable cooking, and capturing and storing existing carbon in the ground with carbon sequestration.

Home Biogas Project, Kenya

The end goal? 

Striking a balance where the carbon we let out matches up with what we're taking in. It's a significant move in the battle against climate change. 

The Benefits of Carbon Offsetting? 

  1. Climate Action Amplification: Carbon offsetting directly contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating the global effort to combat climate change and limit its impacts.
  2. Ecosystem Restoration: Offset projects, like reforestation and afforestation, not only capture carbon dioxide but also enhance biodiversity, soil quality, and the overall health of ecosystems.
  3. Renewable Energy Boost: Investing in offset initiatives such as renewable energy projects, like solar and wind farms, boosts the adoption of clean energy sources, gradually decreasing reliance on fossil fuels.
  4. Empowering Communities: Many offset projects uplift local communities by providing employment opportunities, fostering economic growth, and enhancing living conditions for those involved, for example, the Kenyan HomeBiogas cookstove project that SKOOT works with. HomeBiogas, a certified B Corp, develops biogas systems for home and commercial use, offering a solution for waste management while creating renewable energy. HomeBiogas systems convert organic waste into clean energy for cooking or heating water using anaerobic digestion where the organic material decomposes and turns into biogas and biofertilizer, lowering operational costs and greenhouse gas emissions. [ add link https://www.homebiogas.com/blog/carbon-agreement/
  5. Education and Awareness: Carbon offsetting initiatives can raise public awareness about climate change and encourage positive environmental behaviours.

By tapping into these significant benefits, carbon offsetting plays a pivotal role in shaping a more sustainable and resilient future for our planet.

The Limitations?  

However, carbon offsetting also has its limitations and there are some traps to look out for when looking at beginning your offsetting journey. 

  1. Rebound Effect: Relying solely on carbon offsetting might lead to a rebound effect, where individuals or companies feel they can continue emitting carbon at higher levels since they are offsetting their emissions. This is not the case, the root of the carbon crisis is carbon emissions themselves, therefore this still needs to be addressed alongside carbon offsetting. 
  2. Risk of Greenwashing: Critics argue that carbon offsetting can sometimes be used as a marketing tool to make individuals or companies appear more environmentally conscious without making substantial changes to their core practices. When buying from companies that claim to offset their carbon, or use sustainable materials ensure you look for ‘certified’ or ‘verified’ offsets to ensure they are legitimate. 
  3. Long-Term Sustainability: While offset projects can provide short-term emissions reductions, they might not address the need for systemic changes in energy consumption, transportation, and other carbon-intensive sectors. We still need to aim for entirely renewable energy and materials in everyday life to avoid releasing as much CO2 as we currently do. 

In short, the main limitation of carbon offsetting is that it is not a strategy that replaces the need to reduce and avoid carbon emissions, instead, carbon offsetting should ideally complement broader efforts to reduce emissions at the source and transition to a low-carbon future.

However, it is an invaluable strategy in the climate crisis offering an opportunity to offset emissions and support valuable projects that contribute to environmental sustainability. It is a strategy that should be adopted by individuals, businesses, communities and the government in the face of climate change. 

Especially when done with the most trusted and respected partners such as GoldStandard and Vera. 

We work closely with the likes of Gold Standard ensuring that the projects we buy are fully certified and often speak directly to the teams creating and working on the projects to understand the project in more detail. Alongside being able to access more materials.

We also look to understand future issuance dates and lock-in prices to protect against market fluctuations. 

Here are 10 key definitions surrounding carbon offsetting to further your knowledge:

  1. Carbon Offsetting: Carbon offsetting refers to the practice of compensating for one's own carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by investing in projects or activities that reduce or remove an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.
  2. Carbon Footprint: A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gasses, usually expressed in CO2 equivalent, that are emitted directly or indirectly by an individual, organization, event, or product. 
  3. Climate Change: According to the United Nations, it's about long-term shifts in weather patterns and temperatures. Whilst this process does happen naturally due to changes in the sun's activity or other natural extreme events like volcanic eruptions, humans have sped up this process dramatically since the industrial revolution with their carbon habits and caused more extreme weather events like drought, flooding, and heatwaves. 
  4. Greenhouse Effect: NASA defines the greenhouse effect as how this heat is trapped in the earth, the process in which gasses trap the sun's heat. The greenhouse effect keeps the Earth warm enough to support life, but then humans interfere by burning fossil fuels which contain carbon and the effect goes into overdrive, which leads to global warming. 
  5. Greenhouse Gas (GHG): Therefore, greenhouse gasses are the ‘heat trapping’ gasses, they include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour which create the heat-trapping blanket.
  6. Offset Projects: An offset project is a specific initiative designed to reduce or remove greenhouse gas emissions. These projects can include activities like reforestation, renewable energy generation, methane capture, and more.
  7. Carbon Credit: An offset credit or carbon credit represents a quantified reduction of greenhouse gas emissions achieved by an offset project. It can be bought or sold in carbon markets to offset a certain amount of emissions.
  8. Verification: Verification involves the assessment and confirmation of the emissions reduction claims made by offset projects. Third-party verification ensures the credibility and integrity of offset credits, looking for this verification will help prevent you from falling into greenwashing traps.
  9. Greenwashing: It is defined by Greenpeace as “a PR tactic that's used to make a company or product appear environmentally friendly without meaningfully reducing its environmental impact”, greenwashing greatly damages the eco movement as it reduces people's trust in sustainability claims by reducing involvement. You can read our blog on Greenwashing and how to avoid it here. 
Net-zero: Net-zero emissions are about balancing the greenhouse gas emissions produced and those removed from the atmosphere, which reduces the impact of climate change. Ensuring that an equal amount of carbon is removed or offset from the atmosphere as it is put into it. Imagine a company that plants trees to offset the carbon it emits – that's aiming for net-zero.
Poppy Stringer

Our eco-conscious blog writer. Passionate about sustainability, she's on a mission to combat ecosystem decline with insightful blogs, driven by her concern for the planet's future.