Carbon offsets are a bit of a divisive topic in the sustainability world. Some people believe that offsets are the most important tool we have to achieve a net-zero society, while others contend that they are merely an elaborate form of greenwashing.
The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle of those two options. And with carbon offsets’ recent reappearance in the news, it’s time to do an in-depth analysis of the two sides of the offset argument.
The Pro-Offset Claim 💰
The central tenet of the pro-offset thesis revolves around financialization.
At its most basic, the argument is something along these lines: The world isn’t set up in a way for people to prioritize the climate over making money, so the key to climate action is to make it profitable.
The way to do this is to create an asset (a carbon offset) that you only acquire through helping the environment that has financial value. Once sustainability is financialized, we can inject the capitalist growth techniques that our species excels at to help the climate instead of using them to harm it.
The primary example used to demonstrate this is a forest. If someone wants to buy a forest, they have no way of returning their investment other than cutting it down for timber or clearing it to develop agriculture, which destroys ecosystems and removes trees, our best carbon storage mechanism.
With carbon offsets, however, the owner of the forest is financially incentivized to protect it, and can even take the profit from selling offsets to buy up more land to preserve.
The Anti-Offset Claim 🧐
While that future sounds amazing, many people aren’t so sure about it.
One of the big problems that arises is the issue of double-counting, where two different parties claim credit for the same carbon offset. Offset markets involve a complicated web of non-profits, governments, companies, and agreements, so double-counted offsets can easily slip through the cracks of the regulatory system.
Additionally, it’s difficult to measure the actual impact of many carbon offsets. Due to the unique factors of every location of an offset and the numerous additional certifications that imbue offsets with more value, there isn’t a proper way to scale the offset verification process.
Furthermore, even if the offsets are counted correctly and their real impact verified, it’s still possible for them to skate the system. Take Lyme Timber for example, which sold over $50 million worth of carbon offsets that were essentially valueless.
The company bought up forest land and let it be rather than cutting it down for timber, just like in the example above. However, the land they bought was already protected, meaning that the offsets generated didn’t actually prevent any greenhouse gas emissions—they were already prevented.
If you add in keeping track of every instance of regulation, engineering difficulty, or any other impediment to an offset project that results in projects taking credit for preventing nonexistent potential emissions, the already-unscalable verification process becomes even more difficult.
So…What’s the Deal with Offsets? 🤷♂️
Especially in the post-truth society of the Internet age, it’s hard to drill down to the “truth” about carbon offsets. With that being said, there are three things that stand out as generally accepted facts that are important to consider:
1: The offset industry is riddled with problems.
2: Financialization over time leads to growth.
3: We are desperately behind in the fight against the ever-accelerating climate crisis, which is as much a fight against time as it is a fight against the climate’s villains.
Incorporating these three facts is an ideal framework for thinking about carbon offsets. If you consider the underlying problems with carbon offsets and weigh them against the problems they’re trying to solve, you find that offsets are somewhere in the middle of greenwashing and a silver bullet climate solution.
The industry has a lot of problems but also has some emerging solutions. Unlike other forms of climate activism, offsets actually have a tangible impact measured in tonnes of GHG removed. This impact is certainly imperfectly measured, but might be better than the impression given in the mainstream media.
Most importantly, especially considering the accelerating nature of the climate crisis and the lack of time available to undergo massive shifts in global systems, offsets present a unique way to buy ourselves some time to build, invent, or decree our way to sustainability.
However, polluting and then offsetting is not the same as just not polluting in the first place, so carbon offsets should not be viewed as the final solution or even a permanent one.
So, the deal with offsets is this: Provided that we invest and work on making them better, offsets can be a really valuable tool to slow the acceleration of the climate crisis and prevent unnecessary and potentially permanent damage. However, in an ideal world, they’re a short-to-medium-term tool, and we should not take any focus away from the long-term solution of building end-to-end sustainable systems.