Stop the carbon offsetting Greenwash

The current virus has temporarily reduced carbon emissions, but climate change is still important.

Carbon offsetting is used to enable an organisation or person engaged in an activity that emits CO2 (or other Greenhouse Gas (GHG)), such as flying, to pay to support project(s) that reduce emissions so they can claim a neutral net effect on climate change. There is a wide range of such projects on offer commercially, an example being planting trees. The cost in £/ton of CO2 varies very widely, and the control and auditing of the validity of their claims is weak. Naturally, both organisations and people are tempted to opt for the cheapest, so there is pressure on projects to overclaim or be dishonest. An offsetting project must lead to additional GHG reductions over what would have happened anyway; for example, if it is profitable without subsidy (most wind or solar projects are now profitable) or is part of a country’s Paris commitment, it is not valid. Double counting is of course dishonest.

Two examples of organisations that offer their customers offsetting are EasyJet and BP Target Neutral (which enables calculation of GHG emissions from various activities such as transport, and then buying carbon offsets). Both pay only about £3/ton of CO2 for offsets, which I very much doubt would stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Another example is the airline industry’s CORSIA scheme, that plans to buy offsets for any future increase in emissions so they can claim to be limiting their (net) emissions; this PR greenwash will help them fend off actions by governments to curb flying.

In my view, it is also vital to take timescale into account. The emissions being offset are usually immediate, but the offset payback usually takes a long time; for example, trees usually take 50 – 100 years to reach their full carbon sequestration potential. Trees also need protection from felling or dying. Reducing GHGs is urgent, with the next 5 or 10 years particularly important.

I think LibDems should have a policy to address any abuse of offsetting. I propose that either only carbon saved in the first 10 years is counted, or, more sophisticated, future savings are discounted at, say, 7% p.a.. The latter would mean that savings in 5 years time have about 40% knocked off, in 10 years time they are halved and in 20 years time divided by 4.

A policy might be that any organisation that pays to offset GHG emissions must count only savings in the first 10 years, and must name which external organisation has/is auditing the projects used. Named organisations can then be monitored by the government, NGOs, or journalists.

* Stewart Reddaway is a Liberal Democrat member, living in North Hertfordshire.

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4 Comments

  • R A Underhill 4th May '20 - 4:55pm

    Stewart Reddaway | Mon 4th May 2020 – 4:12 pm
    “Trees also need protection from felling”
    Today’s news is that mature trees are being felled alongside the proposed route for HS2.
    Should a negative be added to HS2 as a punishment?
    If any tree-huggers are arrested how can we help them? Blaming Jeremy Corbyn for the election result might not be enough.

  • Tony Greaves 4th May '20 - 5:47pm

    There are two kinds of carbon-offsetting. The first is to replace trees and other carbon-securing features when they are destroyed or harmed by development. This will continue to be necessary though the extent of the destruction will increasingly be a matter of debate. The second is to offset carbon released in day-to-day activities (such as transport, heating and lighting etc). This is too often a cop-out and should be regarded with heavy scepticism. the answer is to reduce then stop the release of the carbon. And where offsetting is unavoidable it should happen locally and be specific to what is happening locally, not being used in a theoretical offset of carbon release at the other end of the country, continent or earth. Beware of large carbon-pouring corporations offering to pay for planting a few trees! Those extra trees are needed anyway.

  • I totally agree with this article. The whole idea of jetting around the world then paying into some scheme to wash away the guilt (if there is any) and somehow offset carbon dioxide just seems daft to me. It seems a gift to scammers, designed for the gullible or the virtue signalling wealthy and of little practical value. It didn’t take long for the money men to dream this one up. I’m just amazed that they get away with it.

  • David Garlick 7th May '20 - 5:19pm

    Spot on. Many firms do it especially those closely connected with fossil fuels as producers/users/sellers.

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