Myth Buster - Does Carbon Offsetting Really Work?

Scientists tell us that we need to more than halve GHG emissions by 2030 if we stand any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C and prevent climate-driven disasters. To make this happen, businesses need to expand their climate mitigation portfolio.

Carbon offsetting is a robust, immediate, and measurable way for organisations to take responsibility. Yet many of them may still be reluctant to offset their carbon emissions mostly because of some misconceptions around this net-zero tactic. The headline of The Guardian’s recent investigation on Verra carbon offsets is a case in point. When reading it, one might think that carbon offsets are a scam. But it’s more complicated than that. First of all, the Guardian’s report only focused on a handful of forest conservation projects, so results don’t apply to carbon credits generated by other schemes such as direct air capture (DAC), concrete mineralisation, or ocean-based carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Also, Verra strongly disputed the research outcome, arguing that the methodology used could not accurately estimate the on-the-ground deforestation reduction generated by the carbon offset projects. So, as you can see, there’s a lot of confusion about carbon offsetting. Which is why in this article we’re going to debunk 4 common myths about them. 

4 Myths About Carbon Offsets, Busted

1- They should be the top priority for businesses.

That’s false. While it shouldn’t be at the top of your decarbonisation list, carbon offsets should be part of your wider climate mitigation strategy. First, you should measure your emissions and identify carbon hot-spots. Then, try to do all you can to reduce your carbon footprint (e.g., switch to a green energy provider, invest in an EV fleet, etc.). However, no matter how hard you try, you’ll always have some residual emissions. And that’s where high-quality carbon offsets come handy. When you invest in a carbon offset project you get a certain number of carbon credits. Each of these corresponds to 1 ton of CO2e avoided or removed from the atmosphere. But how can you find high-quality carbon credits? The debunking of the next 3 myths will help you understand how to spot them.

2- They don't add any additional benefit to the environment

A climate-positive carbon offset project should create additional impact. In other words, the carbon removed by an additional project would have remained in the atmosphere in a business-as-usual (i.e., project not being developed) scenario. Also, your carbon credits purchase should be indispensable for the project implementation. For example, this would not be the case if a carbon offset scheme was to be subsidised by governments, as the project would go ahead regardless of your financial contribution. However, additionality is not always a given for carbon credits. For instance, when assessing some of the carbon offset schemes developed as part of the EU Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), researchers found that 85% of them had a low chance of being additional. The carbon offset options analysed in the study included the production of renewable energy, the provision of efficient cook stoves, etc. When injecting the captured CO₂ underground rather than selling it, DAC is a safe bet in terms of additionality. That’s because its economic feasibility would only rely on the sale of carbon credits.

3- They don't permanently remove CO₂

Aside from efficiently removing CO₂ from the air, a worthwhile carbon offset project should ensure its permanent storage. In theory, this means locking carbon for good. In practice, there’s still an ongoing debate about what permanence (or durability) high-quality carbon credits should have. According to some experts, this should be at least 100 years. Trees are an efficient nature-based carbon removal solution and, in the best case scenario, their lifespan is in line with this minimum requirement. However, in the worst case scenario (e.g., forest mismanagement, wildfires, etc.), their carbon storage permanence would not cut it. In contrast, by storing CO₂ in concrete or in rocks deep underground, we’ll safely keep it away from the atmosphere for thousands of years.

4- They make climate change even worse

In some cases, carbon offset projects might trigger the release of emissions elsewhere. That’s what it’s referred to as carbon leakage. Take a forest conservation project, for instance. While preventing the deforestation of a certain land, this kind of initiative might cause the clearance of a nearby unprotected forest for timber production, illegal logging, or agricultural expansion. A US-based simulation estimated that up to 90% of the carbon emissions offset by forest preservation projects could be cancelled out by leakage. So, high-leakage offsets don’t make climate change worse, but are less effective. Yet, not all carbon offsets are leaky. Some experts found that technology-based removals such as DAC and mineral carbonation are leakage-free.

ConclusionsSo, do carbon offsets really work? As for many other complex matters, the answer is “it depends”. Carbon offsetting can be an effective tool to compensate for your residual emissions as long as their climate benefits are additional, permanent, and leakage-free. At Pledge, we make sure our projects tick all these boxes. Reach out today if you want to choose reliable carbon offset programs for businesses and maximise the return of your investments.