Our view on carbon offsetting
Updated: May 18
Following up on The Guardian's article on Carbon Offsets, here are our thoughts on carbon offsetting.
Like many things, carbon offsets *can* be (which doesn’t mean they are) used to produce positive outcome in *some* scenarios. But, the hype around them is a problem because the room for misuse is too big.
The world runs on incentives & carbon offsets can offer a “free pass” for consumption which is a problem. They can reinforce unhealthy incentives & fuel a vicious circle.
Want to fly around the world every day? Cool! Just plant a few trees and here you go, you're definitely not worsening the climate crisis because your travels are carbon neutral, right?
Carbon offsetting: the devil is (always) in the details
There are lots of nuances to this, but a few things need to be considered, for instance:
The lifetime of GreenHouse Gases (GHGs): CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds years. They trap heat and damage Earth's health for a long time (i.e., the contribute to the melting of glaciers, etc etc.).
Biodiversity matters and climate change threatens it. How? Well, let’s stick to forests ecosystems since we're talking about planting trees here. Increased GHG emissions cause disruption in our climate system, and climate change increases the probability of extreme weather events, like droughts for e.g., which increases the risks of wildfires during which burnt trees release most of the CO2 they absorbed throughout their lifetime (and trees burning = ecosystem destroyed).
Now, 3 Questions:
A) When I plant a tree to offset my air travel, which CO2 does it absorb? The CO2 from the flight or the CO2 released by the wildfire which likelihood of occurrence was increased by the flight I took? 🙃
Does it absorb the CO2 from the truck loading fuel in my plane, the CO2 of the truck moving luggage around the airport, the CO2 of the taxi I, and others, took to the airport?... (TL;DR: the room to leave GHG unaccounted for is big!).
B) Are tree offsets picked from diverse species? Do we preserve biodiversity or do we mess with it?
C) Do the trees planted absorb the CO2 of my flight as I sit in the plane? Well, not really. It takes time for a tree to grow, absorb CO2 in large quantities, develop solid roots etc. If you plant a seed/young tree but treat it as “a tree” (without nuance) you have a hole in your carbon accounting. You emit today GHGs that live 100s years (~10 years for CH4) that get offset “in the future” when your tree is adult. This hole of “temporarily not offset” GHGs warms the planet while your tree grows, melting glaciers & increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events, that can cause a wildfire burning your beloved tree, meaning that your flight may not be offset at all. 🥲
Going back to the “incentives” bit. This is problematic, because there's lots of room for the carbon offsets not to work as expected + lots of possible side effects if trees planted are not preserving biodiversity etc, yet, we, consumers, continue to consume as if there's no tmrw, because, you know… we offset our unsustainable consumption, right?
That's the thing, carbon offsets are a sharp double-edged sword 🗡️ & can cause lots of damage by messing with our perception!
⚠️ That doesn’t mean planting trees is useless! ⚠️
What's needed is to cut emissions now. Not play around with carbon offsets to stick to unsustainable consumption.
We think it’s all about consuming better, i.e. consuming less (“less is more”), consuming from sustainable venues, and using a bit of offsets for *residual* emissions.