Carbon Offsets: Where Does the Carbon Go?

Introduction

Elijah has a lot of chores to do before the weekend is over, but he wants to have fun. Instead of working all day, he decides to pay his friends to do chores for him while he reads a good book. They come over, and each work on a different project until all of the chores are done. But what will happen next weekend when Elijah has more chores to do?

Explanation

Carbon offsets are a bit like Elijah’s friends: they do the work so he doesn’t have to change his routine; some companies buy carbon offsets so they don’t have to change their habits. Carbon offsets are not a perfect solution, but are a useful tool when used as a last resort when we can no longer reduce carbon emissions. Instead of Elijah paying his friends to do the work for him, a more sustainable solution would be for him to finish all the chores he could and call them when time was running out. By changing his habits and only calling his friends as a last resort, Elijah saves money in the long-term. And by changing our habits and only using carbon offsets as a last resort, we can save the environment from the long-term negative effects of carbon emissions.

Definition

Carbon offsets are actions meant to compensate for human activities that emit carbon into the air. Companies, and even individuals, can pay an organization that will then use the money for a project meant to either absorb carbon or reduce carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas. When it is emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, much of it stays in the atmosphere and traps heat, directing it back to Earth. Scientists have warned we should limit the global temperature rise to 1.5℃ to prevent the worst effects of climate change. This fact means that we must limit the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon offsets are one fundamental way of doing so, as their function is to absorb or reduce carbon emissions so that the world is closer to carbon neutrality.

How It Works

To limit the global temperature rise, scientists have warned that we must achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible. Carbon neutrality means achieving net-zero carbon emissions, which is an equal balance between the amount of carbon emissions humans put into the atmosphere with the amount of carbon that is absorbed from the atmosphere. The first step in this process is carbon reduction, where countries and big companies reduce their carbon emissions, often by setting emission caps. 

The second step is carbon offsets. These are especially relevant in international discussions since companies and governments can use offsets as a way to earn carbon credits, which are permits to emit one ton of carbon dioxide. The Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that binds participating countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, allows organizations that are unable to reduce their carbon emissions by the required amount to purchase carbon credits instead.

Carbon offsets can support various projects, including afforestation, solar energy, and energy-efficient buildings. However, some projects are more effective than others, and critics say that offsets are used as an excuse for not changing one’s habits. The World Wildlife Fund UK, Greenpeace, and the Friends of Nature put out a statement in 2006 saying that “Purchasing offsets can be seen as an easy way out for governments, businesses and individuals to continue polluting without making changes to the way they do business or their behaviour.” 

Carbon offsets are also controversial because of their disproportionate effect on developing countries. Typically, it is industries or individuals from developed countries that are purchasing carbon offsets, but the projects usually take place in developing countries. Proponents say that these projects, which can take the form of energy-efficient stoves and other energy-saving projects, save the people in those areas money. Critics argue that this setup absolves developed, high-carbon countries of their guilt and places much of the burden on developing countries to clean up the pollution.

Why Care?

Carbon offsets can be a responsible way for companies to close the gap between the carbon they are currently emitting and carbon neutrality. Alternatively, they can be a marketing stunt where a company publicizes its use of carbon offsets without making an attempt to reduce its overall carbon emissions, which is then called greenwashing. 

Big industries and governments are the ones that emit the most greenhouse gases, and so they are the ones who have the most responsibility to help achieve carbon neutrality. Nevertheless, individuals can still take meaningful action, whether that be in reducing their energy consumption or contacting their representatives. Carbon offsets are a complicated topic, but knowing more about them allows people to make informed decisions about their environmental actions. Buying carbon offsets can be a sustainable action. Still, this fact is only true when someone has already worked to minimize their carbon footprint, the total greenhouse gas emissions a person causes, and researched the carbon offsetting company.

Think Further

  1. What do you think is the most effective way to achieve carbon neutrality? What role do/should carbon offsets play in the process of achieving that goal?
  2. What role do carbon offsets play in international relations? How do they fit into the larger process of the international community achieving carbon neutrality? Do carbon offsets affect some countries differently than others? If so, how?
  3. How can you help achieve carbon neutrality?

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Learn More

  1. Clark, Duncan. “A Complete Guide to Carbon Offsetting.” The Guardian, 16 Sept. 2011. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/sep/16/carbon-offset-projects-carbon-emissions.
  2. Friends of the Earth, et al. Joint Statement on Offsetting Carbon Emissions. Aug. 2006, http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/august06.pdf.
  3. “How Carbon Offsets Work.” HowStuffWorks, 22 Aug. 2007. science.howstuffworks.com, https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/carbon-offset.htm
  4. Polonsky, Michael J., et al. “The New Greenwash? Potential Marketing Problems with Carbon Offsets.” International Journal of Business Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 49–54.
  5. “Withdrawn UN Advert Shows Why Carbon Offset Scheme Should Be Scrapped.” Climate Home News, 31 Aug. 2018. www.climatechangenews.com, https://www.climatechangenews.com/2018/08/31/withdrawn-un-advert-shows-carbon-offset-scheme-scrapped/.