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Carbon Pricing

Published on October 24th, 2019 | by Ciara Gillan


Does Carbon Offsetting Really Work?

October 24th, 2019 by  

Since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 (an extenuation of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the practice of offsetting carbon emissions has been long utilized by large corporations, businesses, and individuals alike. From purchasing carbon credits to making personalized payments to climate change projects in developing countries, carbon offsetting has been viewed as a viable option by many in the battle against global warming.

Image credit: World Economic Forum

When it began, it was not properly regulated. Led by small entities, it wasn’t always clear which projects were real and where your contributions were going. Today the market is more mainstream, “highly regulated global carbon and renewable energy markets have been set up,” smaller entities have been submerged and companies such as American Carbon RegistryClimate Action Reserve, and Gold Standard have become the biggest offset certifiers, ensuring companies and charities meet international standards.

However, despite the regulation of carbon offsetting and the impetus by many businesses and individuals to neutralize their carbon footprint, there is still confusion and a lack of clarity about the best practices. According to The Guardian, “There is no agreement on how much carbon dioxide a journey may emit, confusion about what actions best reduce emissions, a huge choice of where to direct your money, and growing cynicism as airlines, airports and giant carbon-greedy corporations use offsetting to sell more flights or get permission to grow even further.”

So has carbon offsetting simply become a way for corporations to deflect from the real source of the issue? Buying credits to offset a cap is much easier than trying to holistically reduce a company’s GHG emissions. And does paying a carbon offset really reduce (and/or excuse) the impact of private jets on our environment? Or a lack of proper recycling options? Or the purchase of SUVs?  Or is it simply assuaging a guilty conscience?

There are many who would argue that carbon offsetting is a detractor from the real issues. A ‘get out of jail free’ card for the biggest corporate emitters. However, there are others who argue that although it is not the complete solution, it does provide much needed aid and resources to third world countries. What is key to these projects, however, is that “the carbon savings are additional to any savings that might have happened anyway,” and is something certain organizations monitor and adjust if not. And with air travel, “even though the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says that just 1% of passengers offset their carbon emissions through voluntary programmes, there has been a 140-fold growth between 2008 and 2018, with 430 million tonnes of emission reductions generated since 2005.”

So how do we, as individuals, make sure that carbon offsetting is not created in vain? The first step should be to look at things in your life and see what you can reduce there. From your travel options to sustainable purchasing to simply recycling more. And there are also several websites where you can calculate your carbon footprint, with Climate Care being one of them.

And when you’re as low as you can go, there are now more and more options for things to offset in your life, such as your rail, road, air travel, your heating, your daily commute, and even staying in a holiday hotel. Just be sure to do your homework and research the projects you’re contributing to. Sarah Leugers, Communications Director of Gold Standard, says, “always look for the underlying standards,” thereby ensuring that the projects you’re funding are actually achieving the standards they set. 


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About the Author

Ciara Gillan is a writer, audio producer and a lover of crime stories. She writes about the environment and is currently figuring out how long it would take her to get from Berlin to Dublin 'Greta Thunberg' style. You can find her on Twitter, or find her audio work here.

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