Is carbon offsetting cheating?

So what’s my problem with carbon offsetting? I often see firms claiming to be carbon neutral. It’s the new tool to differentiate your product or service. Because customers are becoming more educated about climate change, they’re looking for sustainability from the brands they consume.

I truly applaud those companies which are really making an effort. It takes time and energy to become carbon neutral and then to maintain it. But all too often I read further into these claims and find that this supposed ‘carbon neutral’ status is achieved purely by using offsetting. Well I for one don’t buy it, and here’s why I feel this way…

What is carbon offsetting?

The Oxford Dictionary describes carbon offsetting as ‘The action or process of compensating for carbon dioxide emissions arising from industrial or other human activity, by participating in schemes designed to make equivalent reductions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.’

Put simply, it’s when person 1 pays to use person 2’s carbon emission reductions to reduce 1’s own carbon footprint. In theory it can be economically efficient because buying offsets can be cheaper than making reductions. Person 1 may be able to get a bigger reduction for the same investment than person 2 did.

Why not embrace it then?

My distrust of it stems from the issue that it only works if person 2 does something over and above what they were already going to do anyway. And that’s definitely not always the case.

The carbon offset con

Here are two examples from my own experience.

I already invest in UK commercial forestry. It’s a long term investment that has two environmental benefits: growing trees absorb lots of carbon dioxide; upland forests tend to be good sites for wind farms. My share of the forest is calculated to have absorbed 46 tonnes of CO2 last year. This roughly offsets my immediate family’s emissions.

However, I could sell the 46 tonnes offset to someone else. They could then claim whatever they were doing was carbon neutral. But the problem is that no more trees would be planted and no extra carbon absorbed.

Another example is the solar panels on Clean Air’s factory roof. When we generate power we claim Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin certificates (REGOs). We sell our excess energy to a major UK utility company and we give them REGOs to cover the amount of energy they buy from us. They then use them as proof that they generate renewable energy.

The remaining REGOs (the ones for the solar energy we’ve used ourselves) could be sold and would act as a carbon offset. But just like the forestry ones, they wouldn’t cause any more renewable energy to be installed.

How can we change this?

The problem is there are currently far more offsets available than there are customers for them, and this makes offsets really cheap to buy. If the supply/demand relationship changed then the price might start to reflect the costs of making new projects happen. This would lead to genuine new carbon reduction initiatives.

So what’s Clean Air doing?

At Clean Air we set an ambitious target of Carbon Neutral by 2023 – see my blog about reducing environmental impact . We’re implementing a series of initiatives to become more sustainable. However, we know that to fully achieve this we’ll have to use offsetting.

Our current thinking is to buy our own area of young forest and watch it grow. This way we’ll know that our emissions are really being absorbed. We’re looking for a plot of land that someone else has already prepared and planted and it has to be in the UK. If you know of one, tell me!

Yes, there’s a significant cost to this. But I can’t wait to be able to tell our customers how we can make fume cupboards for them in a carbon neutral way. I know most of them will love it.

Polluion, carbon offsetting