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What is Carbon Offsetting – Solution or Greenwashing Tactic?

Happy Earth Day 2022! 

As climate champions, this day has been marked in our calendars for a long time. Each year, as Earth Day rolls around, a new theme is announced to spark important conversations around some aspect of the climate crisis, and you can bet we’re here for it. 

This year, the theme is Invest In Our Planet. So, we wanted to take this opportunity to dig into something we see more and more of in the sustainability world – namely, carbon offsetting

Because although it’s virtually everywhere, carbon offsetting has become somewhat of a controversial topic. Does carbon offsetting work, or is it just another greenwashing technique? And whatis carbon offsetting? 

Glad you asked. In this article, you’ll learn:

  What Carbon Offsetting Is

  How Carbon Offsetting Works

  Benefits & Problems with Carbon Offsetting

  How to Spot Legit Carbon Offsetting

  Lochtree’s Green Model & Carbon Offsetting Approach

Yup – it’s gonna be a good one, people. Let’s dig in.

What Is Carbon Offsetting? 

So, first of all – what is carbon offsetting? Let’s explain with an example: 

Eager for some sunshine and pasta, you and your family book a trip to Italy over the summer. Now, you know that the flights are gonna be pretty costly for the planet. But for an extra fee, the airline offers the option to offset the emissions of the flight. And it’s not even that expensive – so of course, you tick the box.

Now, you’re still going on your trip. And yes – the flight still lets out the same amount of carbon dioxide as before. But because of that box you ticked, somewhere else in the world, the same amount of carbon dioxide is either removed or prevented from entering the atmosphere.

And since all greenhouse gases mix together in the atmosphere, regardless of where they came from, this essentially neutralizes the effects of your flight.

So, in short – carbon offsetting is the act of investing in projects around the world that reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to neutralizeother emissions. 

This, of course, doesn’t just go for holidays – almost every action you take has an environmental cost attached to it, be it big or small. An online shipment of books. Your morning car ride into work, or the avocado in your grocery store that was grown across the world. All of them can be carbon offset either by you, or the company selling that product or service.

But as simple, and great, as it sounds, it’s not quite that clear-cut. But before we get into that… How, exactly, do you go about carbon offsetting?

How Does Carbon Offsetting Work?

As we said, both individuals and companies can offset their carbon emissions. But, how do you go about it? 

First, you calculate the carbon footprint of the action you wish to compensate for. While this can seem tricky, there are plenty of calculators online, such as this one from WWF, specifically designed to figure out the emissions of various actions.

Next, you invest money into a carbon-offsetting project. Exactly how much depends on the cost of saving the same amount of carbon dioxide as your action released from the atmosphere. And since projects and providers differ, it’s calculated depending on which one you choose.

But, whatare these projects, and how do they help compensate for carbon emissions? 

Well, there are two main types of carbon offsetting projects.

Removal Projects: 

Removal projects focus on absorbing greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere. 

The most common example is planting trees, which is probably what comes to mind when you think of carbon offsetting. This can be done through organizations such as OneTreePlanted, which Lochtree is partnered with.

Trees are natural defense lines against global warming, because they are champions at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But they have other benefits, too, such as providing habitat for a myriad of species and stabilizing ecosystems.

Avoidance Projects: 

Avoidance projects are instead designed to lessen future emissions – before they even happen.

This can be done through investing in clean energy, by building wind, hydro or solar plants, for example. Since renewable energy sources replace fossil fuels, they essentially prevent carbon emissions from happening.

Other projects focus on household emissions, by replacing energy-heavy appliances with more efficient and sustainable ones – such as electric cooking stoves over gas ones, or energy-saving light bulbs. This way, the emissions they would have resulted in are also prevented, before they occur.

So, now that we have a better idea of exactly what we’re investing in – what are the benefits of carbon offsetting?

The Benefits of Carbon Offsetting

There are multiple benefits to carbon offsetting. Since it neutralizes greenhouse gas emissions, it helps to slow the progression of the climate crisis – and buys us time that we desperately need. 

We all know we need to make big, structural changes in order to tackle climate change. But researching, developing, and then implementing sustainable solutions all over the world is no small feat, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

In the meantime, carbon offsetting can help cut our emissions right now. Because the reality is that while there is much we can do, some emissions are unavoidable until new solutions are in place. But by compensating for them, we’re ensuring they have as little impact as possible.

Carbon offsetting helps to slow the progression of the climate crisis – and buys us time that we desperately need.

Not only that, but carbon offsetting actually funds many of the projects that develop and implement sustainable solutions around the world. So, in addition to giving us precious time, carbon offsetting speeds up our shift toward a more sustainable society.

And carbon offsetting doesn’t just take CO2 out of the atmosphere – each project comes with its own set of additional benefits. Planting forests and preserving natural areas, for example, also improves air quality, soil health, provides habitats, and ensures biodiversity.

Carbon offsetting also has a range of social benefits. In fact, many of the projects that are funded by carbon offsetting investments actively contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. They are crucial in creating economic opportunities and infrastructure for impoverished communities around the globe.

Planting forests and preserving natural areas also improves air quality, soil health, provides habitats, and ensures biodiversity.

For instance, a project to build a solar plant provides employment, while also ensuring access to a cost-efficient and sustainable energy source. By bringing income and lowering the local community’s long-term costs, this helps create economic stability that is crucial for many families.

Since that same community no longer has to rely on burning fossil fuels or firewood, it can also help improve indoor air quality, protect local forests and minimize waste. The results often have ripple effects, and become a springboard for continued infrastructure, education, and empowerment over time.

And without the investments made through carbon offsetting, many of these projects wouldn’t be able to run.

So why, then, has carbon offsetting become controversial?

The Problems with Carbon Offsetting

The biggest debate surrounding carbon offsetting is responsibility – or rather how big corporations, and sometimes individuals, too, use it as an excuse notto take responsibility. 

Because while it can be effective to a degree, carbon offsetting alone is not enough to solve the climate crisis. It can compensate for some of it, yes – but we still need to directly cut down on emissions. And the only way to do that is to change our ways.

This is why carbon offsetting has become a dividing topic – some argue that while there are benefits, it doesn’t tackle the real problem. Instead, it lets us off the hook. 

Airlines fly more than ever, but since they’re offsetting, it’s fine – no harm done. Oil giants go on with business as usual, but they compensate through offsetting projects, so they’re doing their bit, right?

And suddenly, carbon offsetting risks becoming another greenwashing tactic – a marketing tool to give the impression that big corporations are doing good things for the planet, when actually they haven’t changed a thing about their business models. Which, of course, is highly problematic.

It easily happens with individuals, too. When a product is compensated for, it can prompt us to buy more than we otherwise would, because it gives us permission not to consider the planet, for once – someone else has taken care of that for us. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that carbon offsetting is bad. But to be effective, it must be paired with real change and accountability, rather than being treated as a free-out-of-jail card. 

There is also the question of climate justice. While it can bring benefits, there’s a range of ethical issues associated with the Western World setting up projects in the Global South, to compensate for their own unsustainable lifestyles. Some have raised the question of climate colonialism, and it is an important one to consider.

To be effective, carbon offsetting must be paired with real change and accountability.

Another concern with carbon offsetting is how long it takes for the offset to actually happen. After all, many of the projects save emissions over time, but the carbon dioxide they are compensating for is being released right now.

It can take decades for trees to fully grow, and clean energy appliances reduce more emissions with each year. While this makes the changes long-lasting, the point of carbon offsetting is to reduce the pressure on our planet while we still have time to fix it. 

Besides, how can companies ensure that the trees that are planted don’t die prematurely from disease or the destabilizing climate? How do you know that the energy projects wouldn’t have happened anyway, with government investments?

In other words, what guarantee is there that the promised carbon offset really becomes an offset?

Excellent questions. Which brings us to…

How to Spot Legit Carbon Offsetting

With greenwashing at an all-time high, wading through carbon offsetting projects can feel tricky. But there are a number of ways to check how legit a carbon offset scheme – and in turn, a company’s claim to be climate compensating – really is. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

1. Certified Projects

As with organic, vegan, and non-toxic products, measures have been taken to ensure that the green claims behind carbon offsetting projects are actually followed through. And they come in the form of certifications

There are many out there, but two big ones are the Voluntary Gold Standard (VGS) and the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS). 

To be afforded either of these, the project must adhere to the rules laid out in the Kyoto Protocol, while demonstrating additional benefits to the local communities where the project is set up. The Gold Standard has a few extra criteria, but both of these are a sign of a legit project that takes responsibility for its local impact.

If you see other certifications than these, though, don’t be put off. You can easily check the criteria of any legit certification on their website, to see whether it meets your standard.

2. Offsetting Guarantees

Carbon offsetting is calculated from the emission savings a project will result in, compared to if that project didn’t happen. How much carbon dioxide will these trees absorb? How much energy will this electric stove save, compared to the gas one installed right now?

But in order to really become an offset, the project managers must prove that the savings are “additional” – meaning that, if their project never happened, these savings wouldn’t have come about some other way. 

Say, for example, that a project is set up to save energy by distributing low-energy light bulbs. But a year later, the government sets up a scheme to do the same. Now, those advertised energy savings would have happened anyway, so it’s not really delivering on that offset promise anymore.

Additional savings, of course, are really difficult to prove, since we have no way of knowing what would have happened if the project never began, or what the future holds.

So, many organizations offer guarantees on their emissions savings. Meaning, if the offsets their projects aimed for come about in other ways, they will invest in another project themselves to ensure the emission savings still happen. 

Other providers see their projects through first, and then sell the offsets to make their money back – so they can reinvest it in new projects. That way, they know exactly how much carbon dioxide their project reduced. This also solves the problem of the emissions savings happening later, since they are essentially already in effect.

3. Paired with Transparent, Direct Climate Action

If it’s both certified and guaranteed, it is likely a solid project that results in real carbon offsets – which is great news.

But if you’re trying to figure out how legit a company is, remember to check beyond their carbon offset policies. Are they taking action to cut down on their emissions directly? 

Look for information about where their products are made and packaged. Are they transparent about their suppliers? Do they offer a recycling scheme, or maybe even upcycling options?

A company with nothing to hide most likely won’t hide its strategies to tackle climate change. So if you can’t find anything about initiatives beyond carbon offsetting, it may be a red flag. 

Remember, carbon offsetting should always be paired with efforts to directly lessen any environmental impact – otherwise, the point is already defeated. This goes for both companies and individuals. 

Lochtree’s Green Model and Carbon Offsetting Projects 

As a one-stop shop for sustainable products, a healthy planet is at the heart of what we do at Lochtree. 

While we do offset our carbon emissions, for example by ensuring that all of our deliveries are carbon-neutral, we don’t stop there. We are also members of 1% For The Planet, and actively invest in both OffGridBox and the Rozalia Project – both of which work for healthier oceans and clean water access. 

We consistently review our business model, not only to make sure that we’re not harming the planet – but to ensure that our company is in fact having a positive impact. 

If you want to learn more about how we work for a greener, healthier world, you can read about our initiatives here. Since we believe in transparency, we also have a page where you can read about all the brands whose products we sell – and like us, they are actively working to lessen their impact on the planet. 

After all, we only have one.

And that’s it for today’s blog! Happy Earth Day 2022, friends – we hope you learned something new from this interesting debate. Will you try carbon offsetting? Let us know in the comments below!

Psst… Do you want to learn more about Corporate Sustainability, and why it’s more important than ever? Check out this blog next!

Resources: 

Nathalie Brundell

Nathalie Brundell is a writer and copywriter with her heart set on a greener future. She splits her time between Stockholm and London, where she studies Creative Writing and the art of gracelessly losing at board games. In her free time, she loves to discover new places and cook pasta to her heart’s content.

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