Carbon offsetting, the practice of reducing or removing emissions of CO2 or other greenhouse gases to offset generated emissions, holds fascinating potential for a world that wants it all – a roaring economy, full employment, the end of poverty, and a healthy planet with safe levels of climate warming greenhouse gases. If only it were all so simple.
Carbon markets, in which producers of emissions can purchase offsets, are a booming business with an estimated $200B or more in annual value for compliance markets and another $200M in “voluntary” markets. Carbon markets are also rife with problems.
What are carbon offsets
Consumption contributes to the increased emission of greenhouse gases that are warming our planet. When we drive in a car, fly on a plane, eat food, heat our homes, purchase goods and services, we are the end users of an economic system that creates emissions. If I know my carbon footprint is 4 tons annually, I might be inspired to take actions to sequester those 4 tons of carbon so the net balance of my carbon emissions is zero. There are many ways to sequester carbon, but one easy to understand example are forests. A mature tree absorbs carbon at a rate of 48 pounds per year (on average). There are about 3 trillion trees on the planet, which is about half as many as there were before the “Anthropocene.” So, efforts to return degraded or deforested land to healthy forest ecosystem has a positive impact on our atmospheric carbon emissions. Since we may not individually be able to engage in carbon sequestering activities in our own backyard, carbon markets have been created to enable the offsetting of emissions. For example, I might purchase 4 tons of carbon offsets at a cost of $25/ton to support a reforestation project. In theory, these projects are audited by independent third-parties so that I know my emissions are being accurately counted. This is a simplification of the process, but you hopefully get the main idea.
What we do to offset emissions
We purchase offsets for all of our Scope 1 and some of our Scope 2 emissions associated with our programs and administrative operations. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions. Scope 2 is purchased energy emissions (eg; the emissions from consumed electricity in an office or factory). We track emissions from sources including staff travel (by plane, bus, car, etc); food consumed on program by participants and staff (using estimates based on the number of vegetarians, etc); and energy consumed in staff office spaces. Our estimated emissions for the year 2019 was 98 tons of carbon. We then purchase offsets to zero out these emissions.
What you can do
You will likely note that one significant source of emissions that is associated with our programs is students travel to and from a session. This would be an example of Scope 3 emissions, defined by the EPA as “the result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization.” We ask all families to offset the emissions associated with travel to and from a session. There are several organizations that offer carbon offsets. We are currently recommending Cool Effect, a 501(c)(3) not-for-proft organization, for the purchase of carbon offsets.
What are the problems with offsetting
There are many. In simple terms, Carbon markets don’t work as well as they need to or as well as their proponents claim. There are problems with the double counting of emissions, the permanence of stored carbon that is counted as an offset, and other verification challenges of offsets. There are also problems with the “additionality” of offsets (eg; was this forest really going to be clear cut without the use of carbon markets to conserve it) and “leakage” of emissions (eg; if one country or region implements a cap and trade system, producers of emissions shift operations to a locale without emissions regulations). Assuming all of these problems can be solved, one prominent issue that is difficult to reconcile is a classic environmental justice dilemma. If we allow pollution in any form to continue, we have to consider the local impacts of that pollution on people. For example, let’s say a coal power plant purchases enough carbon credits to offset 100% of its greenhouse gas emissions. This results in funding a project to restore deforested tropical rainforest. But what about the people living in the communities near the power plant, which experience reduced air quality and health outcomes. Ultimately, a socially just and inclusive solution to the problem of carbon offsets is necessary. As consumers living in an imperfect world we can choose one of two options. Either we accept some degree of environmental harm associated with our consumption and take as many actions as practical to reduce that harm, including things like purchasing carbon offsets. Or we chart our own carbon neutral path with tight oversight of our consumption, such that we are able to ensure the full life cycle cost is without environmental harm. The practical implications here are a lifestyle of austere self-sufficiency uncommon in western society.