How much does carbon offsetting help?

There is a limit to how much you can personally reduce emissions [1]. For example, an airplane flight can be made more efficient e.g. by having more people in the plane, but a flight will always release emissions through burning fuel [13]. You can cancel these out by paying for projects that reduce emission elsewhere, such as planting trees or making buildings and transport more energy efficient [6]. This is called “carbon offsetting” [6].

Some of these projects are very successful [9]. For example, you can pay to help farmers in Sierra Leone to grow chocolate in a sustainable “agroforestry” system, meaning they no longer cut down rainforest [10,11]. This gives people a better income AND protects carbon stored in the forest, reducing emissions [11].

BUT: it is often difficult to tell how effective the projects are [6]. Paying for tree planting often involves planting “monocultures” of just one tree species, making the plantation susceptible to drought and disease, meaning any CO2 it takes out of the atmosphere may be released again within a few years [4,5]. Moreover, some projects have exploited local people [7]: for example, over 20,000 people were evicted from their land in Uganda to make way for a tree planting project run by a British organisation [8]. Many things have a dark side to them.

Carbon offsetting is no excuse for unnecessary unsustainable activities [1,16], but if you do cause emissions, buying carbon offsets is better than not buying them. When buying, please be careful which projects you choose! Look at independently verification (e.g. by [9,14,15]); the ‘Gold Standard’ [14] labels energy efficiency or renewable energy projects that are proven to contribute to local sustainable development [16]. But – for the planet – do NOT do this as an excuse. We still need to reduce our emissions through e.g. flying less and eating less red meat [12].

References

[1] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190409-carbon-offseting-pros-and-cons

[2] https://standfortrees.org/en/footprint

[3] https://community.rspb.org.uk/getinvolved/b/rainforests/posts/did-you-know-you-can-support-rainforest-conservation-through-your-carbon-footprint

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378112709001960

[5] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330691577_Grounding_nature-based_climate_solutions_in_sound_biodiversity_science

[6] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.2167/jost758.0?casa_token=Rhmlu2w2TK0AAAAA:cN_D9vT6s8g4FbwWh2PJDQ_jXqZxQlr9OZAxP7yZ5g3DrVG7JUNQgsyD5OiKVYDtfnPr7nZbmv-x6A

[7] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Connor_Cavanagh/publication/263968322_Virtual_nature_violent_accumulation_The_’spectacular_failure’_of_carbon_offsetting_at_a_Ugandan_National_Park/links/582ea6c308ae138f1c020c3e.pdf

[8] https://www-cdn.oxfam.org/s3fs-public/file_attachments/cs-new-forest-company-uganda-plantations-220911-en_4.pdf

[9] https://standfortrees.org/en/how-it-works

[10] https://standfortrees.org/en/protect-a-forest/gola-rainforest-project-connecting-forests-people

[11] https://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/eat-chocolate-save-rainforest-gola-cocoa-project-tells-you-how

[12] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-49997755

[13] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/science-environment-48206946/how-to-reduce-your-carbon-footprint-when-you-fly

[14] https://www.goldstandard.org/take-action/offset-your-emissions

[15] https://verra.org/

[16] https://friendsoftheearth.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/carbon_offsetting0.pdf

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