Can 'carbon offsetting' be good?

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Can carbon offsetting be good? Or is it all greenwash? Danny Chivers explores.


Too many trees to plant - there isn’t enough space on the planet for all the business carbon offsetting plans. NIKOLA JOVANOVIC/UNSPLASH

Many big businesses are aiming to be ‘net zero’. But very often these rely too much on carbon offsets (spending money to reduce or absorb emissions in another place) – rather than cutting the company’s own pollution.

It’s ridiculous now. The offsetting plans of just three companies – Nestlé, Eni and Shell – would need new forests three times the size of Malaysia. If you add the number of trees that BP, Equinor and other big businesses have promised to plant, there is not enough space on the planet.

But people don’t only buy carbon offsets to greenwash (make a company look green, when it isn’t). Many charities, cities, universities, religious groups and small businesses have also promised to go ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘net-zero’ by 2030. So if these organizations achieve less than a 100-per-cent reduction in emissions by 2030, they also promise to buy carbon offsets to achieve this.

The problem is that there are no ‘good’ offsets – not in the time we need. Most offsetting schemes don’t achieve the reductions they promise and even the best schemes – planting trees, giving people low-carbon cooking stoves or building wind farms – would take more than 20 years to work. This is too slow when we need to halve global emissions by 2030 to prevent catastrophic warming. (And that’s without thinking about the offsetting schemes that cause damage: incorrect carbon accounting, land grabs and taking away indigenous rights.)

But many organizations really want to do something to take responsibility for the emissions they can’t cut. So what is the answer?

The answer is to plan better. It’s not good to think about possible carbon in future. It’s better to decide on fixed targets to reduce carbon, that agree with science, and fund projects that make a difference immediately. We need to move everything away from fossil fuels, protect forests and change whole systems.

This is happening in the arts. For example, Dutch charity Ki Culture tells members to ‘donate to a charity or project that has great environmental impact’ or ‘reinvest the money into your own sustainability projects’. In the UK, sustainable arts charity Julie’s Bicycle gives similar advice and warns people about carbon offsets.

The Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) (a new international group of art galleries) is telling members (more than 360) not to buy carbon offsets, but to decarbonize the art sector and support groups that keep fossil fuels in the ground, defend forests and move the world towards sustainable agriculture. Queens (an art shipping company) has already taken GCC’s advice; they donate money to campaigning environmental lawyers ClientEarth instead of buying offsets. Many other arts companies will do the same.

Many other companies will follow. The Rainforest Action Network has had a Climate Action Fund for years – this is an alternative to offsetting. Lentomaksu in Finland have a voluntary ‘flight fee’ scheme – to encourage air travellers to donate to climate campaigns, not pay to plant trees.

We can see if a company wants climate justice if they cut the company carbon emissions. Let’s hope other companies will start doing this – and not pretend that they pollution has disappeared by magic.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)