Why carbon offsetting is not the future - 03: What makes a good offsetting scheme?

November 16, 2021

As climate change becomes an increasingly tangible concern, reducing carbon emissions (or achieving net zero emissions) is quickly becoming a priority. In this series piece we unpack the realities of carbon offsetting - the good, the bad, and the ugly - to show how it can (and can’t) be part of an impactful sustainability strategy for your company.

Did you miss the previous parts? Catch up in the links below

What makes a good offsetting Scheme?

Last week we explored the carbon market and found that not all carbon credits are created equal. So, what makes an offsetting scheme a good offsetting scheme? Let’s take a look at the key project design principles that all good offsetting projects adhere to:

The first principle is “additionality”: projects must result in additional carbon reductions to what would have happened without the project. Obvious? Apparently not. For example, many schemes purchase forested land to protect it from destruction, using the logic that forested land holds more carbon than cleared land. However, this doesn’t result in additional emissions reductions; those forests already existed, and keeping them won’t lock away any extra carbon. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the protected forest would have been felled without the project’s intervention. It is difficult to say what would have happened. Either way, unless the project actively results in additional emissions reductions, it isn’t fulfilling its offsetting purpose.

This leads to a second principle: A carbon offsetting project must not lead to emissions shifting elsewhere. Let’s use the previous example of purchasing forested land. If the root cause of logging is not addressed (e.g. rampant land clearing to install soybean plantations for cheap cattle feed) then a different forest will be cleared for the same purpose. The net effect is the same, even though on paper one forest was saved.

Permanence is a third principle. Industrial carbon emissions remain in the atmosphere forever, and so to truly counteract these emissions, the offsetting method must be just as permanent. Planting trees or restoring peatland is a common offsetting strategy (because it’s relatively cheap), but trees don’t live forever. Dead plant life returns its stored carbon into the atmosphere when it breaks down. Unless dead trees are replaced with new mature trees forever unto eternity, reforestation will only be a temporary way to offset the very permanent problem of excess industrial emissions. 

This is where Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) comes in. CCS aims to “un-emit” carbon before it reaches the atmosphere, by catching and storing it indefinitely, usually underground. While this technology sounds promising, it remains a long shot as a viable large-scale solution, and any bold claims about the efficacy of CCS as an offsetting tool should be viewed with caution.

Illustration of a carbon capture storage system.

Finally, a good offsetting project does not over promise or exaggerate. One well-publicised scheme in southern India involved replacing traditional cooking stoves with cleaner, fuel-efficient “Chulika” stoves. The Chulika roll-out promised to improve quality of life for local communities as well as to reduce carbon emissions through preventing rampant wood burning. Unfortunately, the project yielded disappointing real-world data: neither smoke output nor demand for firewood dropped as much as expected. Underperforming projects result in an erroneously inflated number of carbon credits being offered on the offsetting market. For offsetting to work, projects must be realistic about their emissions reductions.

Ideally, all carbon offsetting schemes would adhere to the principles outlined above. Unfortunately, only a slim minority tick all boxes, and they are currently rubbing shoulders with poor-quality schemes on the carbon market.


In the next part we explore the dark side of of the carbon market? Read part 4 through the link below

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About the author:

Helena Maratheftis writes regular content for Converge. She is a creative with an academic background in biology (BA) and the environmental sciences (MSc). Her special interest lies in science communication.

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