In the last two articles we saw that the most important ways to deal with carbon is to reduce it at source through well designed products and energy efficient businesses. But even with these measures all of our activities still produce carbon emissions.
In order to avoid irreversible changes to the climate and environment, we need to do two things: drastically reduce our carbon emissions and remove carbon that is already in the atmosphere. This second point is where carbon offsetting comes in.
Carbon offsetting is not a way to carry on with business-as-usual, it’s a tool to deal with remaining carbon after every effort has been made to reduce the emissions created by an activity.
Regulating carbon offsetting and measuring its success is tricky. Good offsetting projects need to meet some requirements:
They need to be additional to carbon that is already captured: trees will absorb carbon whether or not we pay for carbon credits (as long as they remain standing - which, as we will see later, is the key to carbon offsetting).
They need to be permanent. Forest fires, lack of care to keep trees alive and changing government policies can all result in the loss of carbon offset projects, as can a short sighted view of what ‘permanent’ means: 50 years is not permanent.
They need to be ethical. Rich countries can not fund projects that evict indigenous people from their land to make way for tree planting projects.
And they can not be used as an excuse to carry on polluting.
Projects that don’t meet these requirements have been highlighted as a reason why carbon offsetting is just greenwashing. And this is a valid point. But in order to prevent climate disaster, we need to be using every tool in the tool box. A good carbon offset programme, when used alongside dramatically reducing carbon emissions, is one of our most valuable tools.
Carbon offsetting is a bit of a misnomer and I think that’s where the problem comes in. If I take a flight today and then pay to have some trees planted to ‘offset’ the carbon, the two activities don’t match up. It could take 20 years for the trees to start absorbing the same amount of carbon as was produced by my flight. A more accurate, although less catchy, term would be ‘funding future climate preservation’.
Deforestation is the second biggest cause of carbon emissions and we’ve lost nearly 70% of wild species since 1970. Loss of forest cover is responsible for erosion, drought, increased runoff, loss of soil nutrients and more destructive coastal storm surges. Protecting and restoring forests is essential but without funding to keep them standing, logging, agriculture, and development is the financially viable alternative.
Despite the importance of natural solutions to climate change (it’s estimated that they can provide 30% of the carbon absorption needed to mitigate climate change) and the fact that investing in nature is the most cost effective way to provide climate solutions, only 3% of finance committed to protecting the climate is invested in nature. Carbon offsetting provides the financing that ensures countries and local communities keep their forests intact.
And there is evidence that most companies are not using carbon credits as an excuse to carry on polluting. A 2016 report shows that companies that invest in voluntary carbon credits made bigger emission cuts compared to companies that did not.
Like most things carbon offsetting can be done well or badly. When it’s done well the results are amazing. In 1997 Costa Rica started taxing fossil fuel use, raising $26.5 million a year which has been used to protect 1 million hectares of mature forest and restore another 71,000 hectares. The funds helped to increase Costa Rica’s forest cover from 26% to 53% in 30 years.
In New Zealand the 1250 hectare Hinewai Nature reserve on Banks Peninsula is part of the Permanent Forest Sinks Initiative (PFSI) in which landowners permanently retire agricultural land and allow it to regenerate to native forest, and in return are able to sell carbon credits. Income from the carbon sales has helped owners purchase more land for restoration and hire staff to maximise the success of regeneration. As well as capturing 30,000 tonnes of carbon, restoring the forest at Hinewai has increased biodiversity, prevented erosion and improved water quality.
Last year at Sustained Fun we chose to offset our carbon emissions by investing in renewable energy projects through Ecologi. There are lots of different offset programmes to choose from, both those that operate in your home country and abroad. Just remember to first reduce your carbon as much as possible, then offset the rest. Or should I say ‘fund future climate preservation’ to the value of the rest!