Carbon offsetting: does it actually work?

An inherently flawed exercise or a reasonable interim measure on the path to net zero? Two experts in this controversial practice offer their opposing views about its value
Volunteers plant mangrove trees as part of a reforestation project in Malaysia

If you type the words “is carbon offsetting” into a Google search field, the first three autofill suggestions it will make for completing your query are “effective”, “a con” and “greenwashing”. This gives some idea of the public’s scepticism towards the practice, in which organisations compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions by buying ‘carbon credits’ elsewhere. 

In May, Greenpeace criticised offsetting projects for allowing companies to continue with their business as usual without making an “absolute reduction in carbon emissions entering the atmosphere”. Yet demand for offsetting has never been higher in the corporate world. The chancellor has even expressed his desire for the City of London to become a global hub of trading in this market.

Robin Rix is chief policy and markets adviser at Verra, a US-based not-for-profit body that administrates a widely used standard for carbon offsetting. He reports that his organisation is “on track to issue 300 million credits this year, compared with 140 million in 2020 and 110 million in 2019”. 

Rix attributes this jump in demand to the increasing number of net-zero commitments by companies and governments around the world, along with a growing realisation that the climate crisis is already more severe than many had imagined.

He warns businesses seeking carbon credits to ensure that these are “real and independently verified”, arguing that “high-integrity supply will be a key challenge” in meeting the demand for offsetting mechanisms. Verra was founded in 20cap07 with that very goal in mind, intending to provide better quality assurance in the voluntary carbon markets. Unlike some offset schemes, it doesn’t offer credits based on future emission reductions.

“All the credits we issue are for emissions that have been reduced or removed,” Rix stresses. “Let’s say that you plant some trees and forecast that you’ll sequester 10 tonnes of carbon for the next decade. Under our system, you don’t get credits now. But in year three we’d calculate how much carbon has been sequestered, get that verified and only then issue credits.”

Much of Verra’s offsetting work is in forestry, including conservation, afforestation and reforestation. 

“Forests in many countries are under threat from big mining, big logging and big agriculture,” Rix says. “If you’re a smallholder in some of these places, these are powerful forces to be working against. Our projects offer economic incentives for people to prevent their forests from getting chopped down.”

The first priority for every single emitter should be to address their own emissions

Verra has also been investigating several other areas where offsetting can be achieved – particularly the so-called blue carbon sphere, in which marine ecosystems are used to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Activities include the farming of kelp and the restoration of seagrass meadows and mangrove swamps.

Aviation is a key contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. In May, easyJet holidays became the first large tour operator in the UK to announce that it was offsetting emissions directly associated with its holidays, including fuel used by flights and transfers, and energy consumed by guests in their accommodation. It uses Verra’s carbon accounting system and the widely used Gold Standard to certify its offsetting activities. 

“We pay to participate in the highest-standard offsetting projects, which are globally respected,” says the firm’s CEO, Garry Wilson. But he adds that this is an interim measure pending the development of new zero-emission technology in aviation. 

“Right now, offsetting is an important part of what’s available to us and our best way of addressing the carbon emitted by flying,” Wilson says. “We’ll continue to research and implement other ways to reduce emissions, such as removing weight from our aircraft and taxiing on one engine. We are also supporting the development of zero-emission aircraft with partners such as Airbus. We’re committed to transitioning to these as soon as they become viable, which could be as soon as 2035.”

Wilson’s acknowledgment that offsetting is merely a temporary measure reflects a broader change of approach in the private sector, according to Rix. 

“The ground has shifted,” he says. “It used to be a case of: ‘Just neutralise your emissions and offset, full stop.’ But now the whole concept is to give primacy to internal reductions. The top priority for every single emitter should be to address their own emissions.”

In February, Dr Robert Watt, a lecturer in international politics at the University of Manchester, published a research paper entitled The Fantasy of Carbon Offsetting. He says that he finds the practice well suited to the “post-truth period we find ourselves in”.

Why is that? “Carbon offsets are political misdirection,” Watt argues. “Firms turn towards carbon credits because they can, for a price, pretend to be carbon neutral or say that they are net-zero emitters. Even though such statements aren’t credible, they obscure the issues and confuse the public. It allows people to think that things can carry on more or less as before.”

Isn’t that better than nothing? “That’s a common response,” he says. “But this buys into the idea that we simply have to accept the situation as it stands. It’s inherently depoliticising, when what’s needed in response to the climate crisis is a much more substantial shift.”

Watt also doesn’t believe that carbon offsetting can ever be truly fair and verifiable, owing to the power dynamics involved in establishing such schemes. But he adds that changing how we speak about the practice – particularly when addressing its limitations – could prove beneficial. 

“I think it could be quite useful if we can stop talking about offsets and credits being a guarantee of emission reduction,” he says. “By getting away from that kind of language of carbon neutrality, you can start creating a different type of discourse.”

Verra has noticed that a growing number of companies are changing their approach to offsetting and using their carbon credits for new and different purposes. 

“For instance, they’re quantifying the impact of their CSR activities, not necessarily offsetting anything. They want to give millions of dollars to fight the climate crisis. We’d encourage that, as we see market mechanisms as vehicles for delivering results-based finance,” says Rix, who adds that urgently cutting emissions in such a way is the best response to the emergency. 

After all, he observes, “the alternative isn’t that businesses are going to magically shutter all their factories”.