3 Reasons “Carbon Offsetting” Is Nothing But Greenwashing

Published on: 28 October 2022
by KnowESG
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In a viral video in 2007, three entrepreneurs went into Britain's streets carrying heart-shaped helium balloons and red roses. They spoke to anyone who crossed their path, delivering a simple message about their new company, cheatneutral.com.

They promised that for every instance of reported infidelity to them, they would put money towards a couple who vowed to be faithful to one another. At the time, the news was all over it, even bringing in the firm’s founders to justify their claims.

What broadcast media didn’t know until later was that the filmmakers of that viral video were climate activists. And they put that video together to show how silly of an idea it was for companies to create and promote an idea that we’re seeing reemerge once more: carbon offsetting programs.

Back then, the movement for carbon offsetting didn’t get much traction. It was a new idea and in 2007, our environmental concerns weren’t as high as they are now. Today, carbon offsetting has managed to expand to £1 billion last year, convincing people that this is the way to save the planet. By offsetting your plane flight with a few trees will be the solution.

Here are several reasons why it won’t and is nothing more than a sophisticated ploy to greenwash company efforts.

The Maths Doesn’t Add Up Long-Term

There are two things in the world that are able to regulate the chemistry of our air: what is going in, and what is coming out. Since the beginning of time, this has been in balance with the animals, plants, land and sea producing and absorbing the same amount of chemicals into the air.

This balance was threatened in the 1700s when the industrial revolution took hold. While it was an innovative time, this revolution equally revolutionised this equation. It inflated the amount of heat-trapping chemicals while reducing the number of animals, plants, land and sea to capture those same chemicals. They did this through tactics like deforestation, wetland destruction, and damaging ocean life.

Since the 1700s, roughly 1.5 billion hectares of forest have been cleared globally. That’s almost an eighth of the world’s landmass. Pause for a second and let that (carbon) sink in. In the case of wetlands, a 2014 study found about 85% of the world’s wetlands have been drained. And that’s just the land.

It is of note that many carbon offsetting programs focus on planting trees for this effort. And while it’s commendable that they’re planting some trees right now to offset carbon emissions now, it’s not offsetting the hundreds of years of damage that’s been caused. The maths simply doesn’t add up.

The Programmes Inflate Their Results

Banking on people to get warm fuzzy feelings through these programmes, a lot of them neglect the actual science. A prime example is many of the tree-planting initiatives that companies take.

While these are promising initiatives, the reality is that newly-planted trees take upwards of 20 years to capture as much CO2 as a carbon-offset scheme tells customers. In other words, for any of these programmes to be remotely effective, companies would need to plantand protect millions of trees for decades for these programmes to offset even a fraction of emissions.

And even if we take the benefit of the doubt that companies with these programmes will uphold that, those efforts are a drought, wildfire, or tree disease away from being squashed. 

This is on top of the fact that trees do wither and die eventually. As a result, the carbon that is trapped will return to the atmosphere. Should a tree die prematurely for whatever reason, that carbon will be sent right back into the atmosphere. Are we to expect that the same company will replant the same amount of trees?

Offset Projects Can Incentivise Further Emissions

In a 2012 Nature article, Kevin Anderson talks about the same issues that carbon offsetting programmes are faced with today. He concluded with a scenario where if he took a flight to a conference and paid to “offset” his flight, it would only be effective if the programme didn’t provide any further emissions.

What this reveals is that carbon offsetting programmes create a ripple effect. If you do pay for those programmes, the effectiveness of those programmes is very slim as so many contributing factors stretch beyond a single company’s capabilities.

Going back to the example above, while companies can vow to plant trees to offset carbon emissions, their hands are tied if a parent company or an unrelated company goes into that area and cuts down trees.

But what if the carbon offsetting programme isn’t about planting trees? While ambitious this too can cause problems. As Anderson points out, if the offset programme he paid into resulted in a wind turbine for a small rural underdeveloped community, the community could go through industrialisation. They could get access to television or the internet where they would learn about paved roads, cars, trucks, and other high-carbon emitting companies. Next thing you know, the people will demand those things.

Carbon Offsetting Is Nothing But Delaying

For sure, participating in a carbon offsetting programme is better than doing nothing at all. However, with the climate warming up as it is, companies are using carbon offsetting programmes as a means of fixing the planet when it’s not realistic at all.

These kinds of programmes give companies ‘carte blanche’ to continue business as usual and to not address the underlying problems that they have - those being they emit way too much carbon. It’s for this reason companies that tout these kinds of programmes or say they are protecting several acres of forest are nothing but greenwashing. The only exception is if they are taking active steps to cut emissions beyond saving trees or funding cleaner energy initiatives.

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