Carbon offsets can be misleading in a number of ways, and an excuse for some companies to avoid accountability for their carbon emissions. Companies might use carbon offsets as a way to avoid making the difficult decisions necessary to reduce their own emissions, writes Martin Ebeli
There is widespread use of complex, abstract, and politically charged language whilst addressing climate change.
Fact: This makes it difficult for young people to understand the significance of carbon emissions or some of the schemes in place to address it.
One such scheme is “carbon offsets” which can often be complex for young people to understand. For a start, a carbon offset is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that is made in one place to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. Here individuals or organizations can neutralize their carbon emissions by investing in projects or activities that reduce or remove carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This is typically done by buying carbon credits, which are units of carbon reduction, from verified carbon offset projects.
The idea behind carbon offsetting is that it allows individuals and organizations to compensate for their carbon emissions, which contribute to climate change, by supporting efforts to reduce or remove carbon from the atmosphere. This can help reduce the overall impact of carbon emissions on the environment.
Offsets can be beneficial specifically in the sense that they allow entities to reduce emissions, support biodiversity conservation, provide funding for nature-based solutions, and create environmental and social co-benefits
Fiction: Carbon offsets always result in a real, permanent and verifiable reduction of emissions.
Carbon offsets can be misleading in a number of ways, and an excuse for some companies to avoid accountability for their carbon emissions. Companies might use carbon offsets as a way to avoid making the difficult decisions necessary to reduce their own emissions. For example, a company might invest in an offset project, such as a wind farm, while continuing to rely on fossil fuels for its operations. This allows the company to claim that it is “carbon neutral” or “offsetting” its emissions, while it is still contributing to the problem.
Many industries especially the fashion industry offset through funding for renewable energy projects and reforestation. The challenge with these projects is the lack of additionality. This is a term used to describe the concept of ensuring that a carbon offset project is additional to what would have happened anyway, without the offset project. Additionality, it is important because carbon offset projects must create emissions reductions that wouldn’t have happened without the offset funding. This ensures that offsetting is actually reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
Additionally, these reforestation and afforestation projects impact food security, which in turn drives up prices for marginalised populations.
Fact: Carbon offsets should not be used as a substitute for real action to reduce emissions, but rather as a complementary tool in the transition to a low-carbon economy.
This lack of transparency in many carbon offsetting schemes is making it difficult for consumers to understand the true impact of their offsets. Often offset purchases do not actually reduce emissions. Young people are more likely to purchase for example a fashion item if that brand labels it as “carbon neutral”. This is one way to “greenwash” a company’s image without actually reducing emissions. Companies may use offsetting as a way to appear environmentally friendly without making significant changes to their operations.
Continuing in this way is not a solution to climate change as it is important to address the root causes of emissions, and offsetting should only complement existing methods instead of substituting existing mitigation efforts.
A meaningful climate strategy has to be geared towards curbing carbon emissions. There is no way around that. Companies should invest in science-based solutions than distorting reality with clever marketing terminologies.
Martin is a co-founder of Equal Aqua Uganda, a community-based organisation that seeks to tackle issues related to water inequality and the restoration of water-related eco-systems impacted by plastic pollution. In addition, he regularly supports local governments in Eastern Uganda draft and update their natural resources management by-laws. This is because he believes that effective change starts with local solutions. Martin holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from Makerere University and has extensive experience in environmental law regulation and policy.