Should people offset their carbon footprints?

Carbon offsetting is something we read about a lot these days. It is a complex area and it can be difficult to work out the right way forward. With an increasing amount of people concerned about their environmental impact, buying carbon offsets is one way to go.

What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offsetting is a growing industry. Companies set up projects that either reduce emissions (by building renewable energy plants, for example), or absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (by planting or protecting forests). Legal considerations connected to the Kyoto Protocol mean that projects should always be in developing countries.
The list of carbon offset buyers is dominated by private companies, but public sector organisations and charities are cropping up more often. Individuals make up less than 2% of the total.

Why do people buy carbon offsets?
People buy carbon offsets to counteract parts of their carbon footprint that they can not avoid. The motivations for doing so are usually to take responsibility for emissions that are a necessary part of their lives.
Friends of the Earth calls carbon offsetting a ‘dangerous distraction’ because it can lead people into thinking that they don’t need to reduce their carbon footprint – it’s ok to pollute just so long as you pay a small amount to offset it.
More often than not, however, the people who want to offset are also the ones making an effort to reduce their carbon footprint.

Projects that reduce emissions in the developing world are usually well intended, but there are risks. In particular, there is a risk that a project would have gone ahead without the money provided by offsets—meaning that the offsets have no real impact.
A Friends of the Earth report into the industry reveals that offset projects do not deliver credible environmental benefits, stating “There are strong concerns over the environmental credibility of many of the credits and the contribution of the projects to sustainable development.”
Few organisations have the necessary time to do the required due diligence on projects, meaning that some organisations damage their reputation by inadvertently choosing the wrong project.

A new way of offsetting
Retiring credits from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme is one way of overcoming these pitfalls.
This new method of carbon offsetting works by buying and cancelling (‘retiring’) ‘permits to pollute’ from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Industrial companies that would have bought the permits instead have to reduce their emissions. It is a simple, effective way to offset and it reduces emissions within Europe, where emissions per person are high.
Retirement is gaining support from all areas – even hard-line environmental commentators previous sceptical of offsetting. John Grant, author of The Green Marketing Manifesto, described Carbon Retirement, the first company to offer this service, as “the world’s first truly ethical offsetting scheme.”

Top tips
If you are thinking of buying carbon offsets, read our three point guide.

1. Be able to satisfy yourself that offsetting is not distracting from your efforts to reduce your emissions. You ought to try as hard as you can to choose the green option – and then offset what you cannot avoid.
2. Question whether the project really needs your financial support. If it can stand alone, you could probably spend your money better elsewhere. Or consider a non-project based approach such as Carbon Retirement, which forces emissions reductions from European heavy industry.
3. Look for suppliers that can explain which standard was used to verify the credits. There are many standards available but the most stringent are the Quality Assurance Scheme and WWF’s Gold Standard.

    Jane Burston is a director at Carbon Retirement