If you’ve ever tried to read into carbon offsets, you’ll have noticed the area is inevitably accompanied by controversy. But before we delve into that, let’s start off simple. What is a carbon offset? A carbon offset is a mechanism by which you can pay others to reduce or remove pollution to account for your own emissions. On the surface this seems like a very simple concept, but the deeper you delve, the more complex that becomes.
The reason this is so controversial is due to the multitude of ways in which carbon offsets have been used. Inconsistent frameworks for verification and opaque trading practices mean there have been multiple cases of large companies using offsets to make themselves seem sustainable, without materially changing their net emissions. This has led to a “black box” scenario of money in, offsets out, which has naturally led to questioning of the positive credentials of carbon offset markets as a force for good.
Greenwashing: the process of conveying a false impression of action on environmental matters. It is crucial to acknowledge that offsetting carries a significant risk of being used for such purposes, and thus work to prevent this from happening.
Now, there can be no controversy in the statement that the best way to address the climate crisis is to reduce the underlying emissions that cause it. Unfortunately, this will take time. Until such a point, what should be done about those unavoidable emissions associated with day-to-day life? This is where carbon offsets do have a role to play. To really come into their own though, they need to deliver an uncompromising focus on transparency and sustainability. There are established frameworks for verifications such as VCS, The Woodland Carbon Code, Gold Standard and Plan Vivo. However, to truly understand what constitutes a ‘good’ offset, we need to dig a little deeper.
As a baseline, there are three main areas that are considered when comparing offsets: (i) verification of offsets — how the offsets are measured; (ii) additionality of offsets — the money contributed to a project must remove carbon from the atmosphere that wouldn’t otherwise be removed; and (iii) permanence of offsets — we must ensure the longevity of carbon stores.
Each of these are complex issues in their own right (warranting much deeper consideration than we have space for here); but let’s try and outline a broad approach that underpins our search criteria when evaluating new projects at SettleUp Earth.
Say you’ve planted a forest, how do you know its impact? This is where verification comes in. The process involves auditing a project to calculate the amount of CO2 offset. Per tonne of CO2 calculated, a “carbon credit” is issued which equates to 1 tonne of CO2 which is removed from the atmosphere. This needs to be carried out by a third party, ideally a governmental body, or a trustworthy verification body.
This is effectively saying that for each pound contributed to a project, a known amount of carbon will be removed from the atmosphere. Importantly, this carbon would not have been removed without that money, allowing us to draw a direct link between each contribution and the carbon that has been removed. This sounds simple but can get quite complicated when considering larger projects. For example, let us compare 2 projects. In the first case, you contribute £20 to help finance a hydroelectric dam. This will avoid carbon being emitted via more polluting means of energy production. However, is it likely that construction will still go ahead without your £20 contribution? I’ll let you decide.
Now let us consider a typical mangrove reforestation project. Here, your £20 could fund an additional 10 trees. That is definitely additional.
Great! You’ve contributed to the forestry project, so the carbon has now been offset, correct? Not quite. Mangroves typically take roughly 25 years to grow, they absorb CO2 throughout this time, so it’s crucial that they are protected for at least that long. However, the longevity question is somewhat more complex than that. We need to consider the permanence of those trees as a carbon store. If the trees are felled for firewood next year, they’ll release all of that carbon we really want to stay put. As such, we select to work with projects which protect the forests in the long-term. We’re also considering even more permanent carbon stores such as rock-based carbon storage solutions.
Hopefully you now have a good understanding of the logistics of selecting a good offset. But we at SettleUp Earth believe there is a vital fourth consideration: making sure these offsets have social co-benefits. If contributions can also support fair employment, address poverty and gender equality and restore natural ecosystems, this is where offsets can really come into their own as a transformative force for good.
It is clear that the carbon offset field is complex. We at SettleUp Earth are guided by the Oxford Offsetting Principles, which are a fantastic authority on this issue. As part of our commitment to good offsets, we have spent the better part of a year working with academics to get our head around this problem so that we can present only the highest quality offsetting projects. This is where our fantastic partners come in helping us to fulfil all of these criteria and more. If you want to read more about them, you can find further information here.
James is one of the co-founders of SettleUp Earth. He is passionate about science and technology alongside the environment with previous experience running a bio-fuel startup and is also in the final stages of completing a PhD at Imperial College London. In his spare time he is a keen runner and climber.