Climate change is mostly caused by humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases, of which carbon dioxide is the most damaging, so that globally we must cut back our emissions to prevent the worst consequences of global warming. Carbon offsetting is sometimes suggested as a method of reducing the carbon footprints of individuals or organisations. However, rather than the emitters having to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, offsetting involves someone else reducing their emissions instead, usually for a payment. The cost of offsetting, if priced realistically, can provide an incentive to reduce emissions.
Offsetting is often mentioned in the context of extra or ‘unavoidable’ emissions over and above a given lifestyle that, with more care or restraint, could be avoided. Many travel firms now offer an offset option when you book plane tickets (air travel usually involves greater emissions than other forms of transport). For example, you might pay someone in a developing country to plant trees that are intended to eventually soak up at least the same amount of emissions that you will cause by taking a flight. Other offsetting projects include the development of hydro-electric power stations, biomass-fuelled combined heat and power (CHP) plant and wind farms where more carbon-intensive power generation would otherwise have taken place.
There are several problems with offsetting schemes. The emitter needs to be sure that:
· the emissions reductions from their chosen scheme wouldn’t have happened anyway (otherwise their emissions will not actually have been offset)
· the scheme will cause a permanent reduction in emissions
· the scheme has not caused an increase in emissions elsewhere
· the scheme will remove greenhouse gases at broadly the same time and rate as they are emitted, otherwise, on balance, the emissions could end up causing net damage to the atmosphere.
There is also a moral question about using offsetting schemes in developing countries. Why should someone who is much poorer than us in the UK be encouraged to reduce their emissions so that we can continue to live in an unsustainable and even extravagant way? Logically, if we take responsibility for our own emissions, then we should end up offsetting our own extra and ‘unavoidable’ emissions by our own actions. For example, if we feel we have to buy a larger car than we really need, then maybe we should offset the extra emissions involved by turning down our central heating at home until the equivalent emissions have been saved!
UK government recommends that offsetting should only be considered after the emitter has quantified the likely emissions involved, considered all actions to avoid the emissions and taken steps to reduce the emissions by efficiency measures. Therefore WinACC recommends that we consider offsetting our emissions only as a last resort, after we have reduced our emissions as much as we can. However, some travel (and other activities) may be judged to be truly unavoidable for a variety of reasons. In these cases, individuals or organisations may wish to buy assured offset credits from a regulated scheme that ensures that the corresponding emissions reductions elsewhere in the world are both additional and permanent.
If it works as intended, offsetting can lead to carbon neutral actions with zero net emissions. Ideally, this is achieved, as described above, through a transparent process of calculating emissions, minimising those emissions and then offsetting residual emissions. However, offsetting is not a “cure” for climate change; the most effective way to combat climate change is to reduce our emissions.