What connects Extinction Rebellion, Elton John and EasyJet? All three drove a peak in Google searches for carbon offsets in 2019.
In April 2019, the Extinction Rebellion protests across the UK brought the climate crisis, and the role of carbon offsets, to the top of the news agenda. In August, Sir Elton paid to offset Harry and Meghan's flights after they took a private jet to visit him in Nice. And then in November, EasyJet announced they would start offsetting the carbon emissions from every flight across their network.
Carbon offsets have become a hot topic, and the data suggests that demand for carbon offsets has been growing rapidly, both among corporates and individuals. The Guardian has reported one provider seeing a four-fold increase in offsetting from individuals and small businesses.
But for many people, offsetting is still a bit of a mystery... What exactly is offsetting? Where does the money go? And if you do want to offset, how should you go about it to make sure you are making a difference?
What is Offsetting? - The only way to take your carbon footprint to zero
Carbon offsetting involves donating a sum of money to a project that either prevents greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere (such as constructing a solar plant) or removes emissions from the atmosphere (such as large-scale tree planting). Effective offsetting requires someone to calculate the amount of emissions produced by the action you are trying to offset, and the monetary cost of offsetting those emissions.
It’s important to remember that offsetting on its own isn’t a solution to the climate crisis. Offsetting should not prevent companies or individuals from trying to reduce their emissions or seeking practical solutions to environmental problems, but it is the only way to become truly carbon neutral.
“Offsetting on its own isn’t a solution to the climate crisis [...] but it is the only way to become truly carbon neutral.”
For more on your carbon footprint, and why carbon offsetting is the only way for an individual to become truly carbon neutral, see our previous blog post: The Power of the Individual in Effective Climate Action
What are the different kinds of offsetting projects?
As mentioned above, there are broadly two main types of offsetting projects. These are: (1) prevention projects; and (2) reduction projects.
Within each of these, there are a wide variety of initiatives, and new solutions are constantly being designed, trialled and developed.
Prevention projects (as the name implies) prevent carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere. For instance, funding the construction of a solar power plant would be a prevention project, because it reduces our reliance on fossil fuels as a means of producing power in the future.
Here’s a number of examples of other preventative projects:
Reduction projects aim to take carbon emission out of the atmosphere. This is also often referred to as GGR (greenhouse gas removal) or carbon sequestration.
Today, prevention projects are often the most cost effective means of reducing future global CO2, partly because of how polluting our global economy is in its current form. Ultimately, however, we will need to also pursue carbon removal to reach sustainable levels of global CO2.
Recently, there has been a surge in interest in reforestation (tree-planting) and other nature-based reduction projects. Data from 2018 suggests that projects related to forestry and land use are the most in demand, followed by renewable energy projects (mainly wind and solar).
Offsets have generated some controversy, and thought-leaders on climate change such as George Monbiot have written articles on the potential dangers of too great a focus on offsetting, and also touted the benefits of projects such as reforestation. We think a lot of the past controversy surrounding offsetting has stemmed from valid, but ultimately addressable, concerns about the integrity of projects, which we address in the following sections. Realistically however, carbon offsets will have to be part of our strategy to tackle climate change if we’re to have any hope of meeting the Paris agreement targets, and as such, it’s even more important that individuals understand how to find effective, sustainable offsetting projects to support.
“A lot of the past controversy surrounding offsetting has stemmed from valid, but ultimately addressable, concerns about the integrity of projects”
How do I choose the right offsetting project to donate to?
There have historically been a number of practical concerns surrounding offsetting, most notably worries about the integrity of projects. With project transparency often limited, it’s difficult for consumers to know what sort of impact they are really making, and trust that they are achieving the environmental benefit they are paying for.
That’s why it’s important to choose offsetting projects or programs that have been subject to independent verification. One example of an independent verifier would be Gold Standard (set up by the WWF and other NGOs in 2003), but there’s also Plan Vivo, Verra and others.
A verifier such as Gold Standard will have a list of criteria that projects must meet to achieve certification. For instance, when you purchase an offset credit that has been designated a Gold Standard verified emission reduction (VER), you know that the project you are supporting is transparent, considers affected stakeholders, makes contributions to multiple UN sustainable development goals, has the support of Gold Standards’s network of NGOs, and has worked to prevent unintended consequences and trade-offs.
One of the more attractive, and often overlooked, aspects of verified carbon offsetting projects is their potential to offer additional benefits for local communities, beyond emission prevention and reduction. In the chart below, we show Gold Standard’s own estimates for how various projects create additional value across multiple UN sustainable development goals.
“One of the more attractive, and often overlooked, aspects of verified carbon offsetting projects is their potential to offer additional benefits for local communities”
The accreditations administered by organisations such as Verra and Gold Standard can be very helpful for individuals who want to know the projects they are supporting are legitimate. However, the number of standards and the variation in their requirements for accreditation can create a somewhat confusing landscape!
Confused? Here are four criteria to help you
We believe there are four key criteria for individuals to keep in mind when choosing an offsetting project:
(1) Verifiable - Projects should be independently verified and able to be spot-checked at any time.
What this means: This allows you to ensure that your money is funding what it is supposed to, and is being managed appropriately. You don’t want to be funding a “tree-planting project” that is actually a furniture-making enterprise!
(2) Quantifiable impact - Ongoing measurements have to accurately evidence emission reductions before benefits can be claimed.
What this means: This prevents projects from claiming to make a difference, when in reality the benefits are uncertain; for instance, you want to know your tree-planting project is actually growing and sustaining trees, rather than chucking some seeds on the ground and walking away!
(3) Additional - Emission reductions would only be possible with the project funding.
What this means: This prevents offsetting benefits being claimed when the action would have taken place anyway; for instance, if a local council had already committed to installing heat insulation in its buildings, but the council then uses offset funds to save money on the cost of doing so.
(4) Sustainable - All projects must be underpinned by a sound economic model.
What this means: This ensures that the project has a continuing positive impact on the environment, and does not end up contributing to the climate crisis in the long-term. For example, you wouldn’t want to fund the construction of a solar project without first ensuring that the local community is willing to operate and maintain the project for decades, rather than just the next five years.