This article looks into carbon offsets and sustainability. Do these various initiatives offer a pathway for high-carbon industries to rapidly decarbonise? Or are they misleading customers and corporate stakeholders as to the true sustainability of a business?

Ian Livesey

There is no doubt that this was all kicked into the mainstream with Easy Jet’s promise to become the world’s first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights across its entire network, announcing that it would offset all jet fuel emissions through a variety of carbon offsetting mechanisms.

This all sounds wonderful, but if everything was as easy as paying others to reduce carbon emissions, so that high carbon industries could continue to emit high volumes of emissions and reduce their contribution towards climate change at a slower rate, then why was this not thought of earlier? The reason, is that what is sold as a bonified solution that stimulates progress is a murky world where emissions may be falling, staying the same or in some cases increasing.

Kevin Anderson, who I have written about before as he is a major authority on climate change was quick to step in with his perspective that carbon offsets do not work as they are portrayed. You can find images of his Twitter thread below.

Kevin Anderson Tweet 1

Kevin Anderson Tweet 2

Kevin makes two really good points in his Tweet. One is that the science and mechanics around carbon offsets is far from settled. The other is around total emissions, rather than efficiency. If you buy planes or other machinery that is marginally more efficient, but you buy more of them and use them more, the carbon reduction gains from improved efficiency will be cancelled out by the increased volume of carbon emitting activity.

In his Tweet, Kevin shares a link to his 2012 article in Nature The Inconvenient truth of carbon offsets. I will pick out what I consider to be the best bits from this article.

Kevin shares the following opinion:

“Offsetting is worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.”

He goes on to explain that:

The science underpinning climate change makes clear that the temperature rise by around the end of this century will relate to the total emissions of long-lived greenhouse gasses between 2000 and 2100.

Kevin then moves on to make what I consider his most valuable argument:

The promise of offsetting triggers a rebound away from meaningful mitigation and towards the development of further high-carbon infrastructures… If offsetting is deemed to have equivalence with mitigation, the incentive to move to lower-carbon technologies, behaviours and practices is reduced accordingly.”

Overall, from Kevin’s analysis, it is hard to take anything positive about carbon offsetting.

Then towards the end of the week, I saw another article on carbon offsetting doing the rounds that really caught my eye. It came from the most unsuspecting of sources, CNN.

CNN article

I was really impressed with quality of this article and for taking on the challenge of explaining to the public that there are no easy solutions. Carbon offsetting is not a panacea for high-carbon, energy-intensive industries to become sustainability leaders overnight.

The only thing that I would improve about the CNN article, is that it is important to include the impact of radiative forcing when talking about the impact of carbon emissions from the aviation sector. Failure to do this portrays an unrealistically low carbon impact from this sector.

But I have to say that it is positive to see a major news outlet such as CNN take on a challenging subject such as carbon offsetting and explain to their readers that this does not offer a magic bullet to addressing climate change.

What you need to know

This article looked into carbon offsets and sustainability.

We looked into the Easy Jet carbon offset guarantee that was recently announced.

We looked into the rebuttal by Kevin Anderson and his 2012 article in Nature.

We also looked into a surprisingly good article in CNN by Julia Buckley which exposes the limitations of carbon offsets.

The key takeaway should be that the whole process of carbon offsetting is fraught with limitations. Some sides of the argument would say that it is an overall negative activity as it distracts from reducing emissions and facilitates increased investments in high-carbon industries. There are those who say it is either a harmless activity or something which is an overall positive in helping to lower emissions in high-carbon industries until such a time that technology allows them to be responsible for fewer emissions.

On this argument I am likely to side with Kevin Anderson as he is a major authority on climate science. If they are even slightly less effective than they are promoted as being and if they distract even remotely from mitigation activities and increase emissions in the short run, then they are a negative force. The onus is on the providers of the offsets and the companies wishing to be declared as carbon neutral to prove that they are leading to overall carbon emissions reductions.

As with most things in life, things that seem simple very often turn out to be a great deal more complicated than originally thought.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or reach out to me on social media. What do you think about the effectiveness of carbon offsets?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

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