Should you buy carbon offsets?
Last updated 1/2/2019
Are you, an institution you’re a part of, or the company you’re working for looking to “go green?” Purchasing carbon offsets to minimize the impact of your emissions may be an option to consider (and an easy one at that). As with any investment, carbon offsets come with pros and cons.
Pros of carbon offsets
Carbon offsets and the projects they support have a positive impact on the environment. The most recent data shows that the current concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has reached about 406 parts per million. As this number continues to rise, trends show that overall temperatures around the earth are also increasing.
While climate change is still happening despite mechanisms like carbon offsets, the overall growth of offset projects and the purchasing of offsets can slow the increase in CO2. The projects that you invest in today (if they are additional and have permanence) are going to continue to have an impact on overall emissions. A study reports that in 2015 alone, voluntary carbon offsets contributed to offsetting 84.1 millions tonnes of CO2-equivalent. Over the years since carbon offsets came about, projects have resulted in roughly 994 millions tonnes of CO2-equivalent offset from the atmosphere.
While carbon offsets’ primary purpose is to contribute to overall lower greenhouse gas emissions, the projects that are designed to offset carbon often have a lot of social benefit as well.
Many offset projects are built in developing countries. As a result, while you’re not directly impacting your own community, these projects often benefit society as a while because they contribute to job creation in developing countries. In the case of projects like installing off-grid solar panel systems, they can also contribute to the advancement and implementation of technology in needing or remote areas. (An off-grid solar panel system reduces reliance on fossil fuels while simultaneously providing electricity.)
For businesses in particular, investing in carbon offsets can improve the company’s overall image, and contribute to their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. More companies are choosing to place high value in CSR and self-regulating their own actions to benefit society as a whole.
Many actions under the CSR umbrella include sustainability or environmental initiatives. Purchasing carbon offsets can lower a company’s overall carbon footprint for things like manufacturing, shipping, and employee travel. CSR not only benefits society and the environment, but the business itself – it’s particularly useful in terms of employee retention and recruitment.
Cons of carbon offsets
While there are benefits to the purchase of carbon offset, there are consistent arguments against the purchase of carbon offsets, even when they’re verified and considered reputable in the industry.
More people (and organizations) are purchasing carbon offsets – but the world’s overall emissions of greenhouse gases is increasing, too. Opponents of carbon offsets argue that allowing parties to purchase carbon offsets as a means of combating their own emissions is essentially a “license to pollute,” and may make them more likely to emit more carbon if they know there is a mechanism for decreasing emissions elsewhere.
While purchasing carbon offsets can help to offset greenhouse gas emissions, they don’t address the broader issue of how our habits contribute to climate change. Is there more individuals and companies could do to decrease their own emissions before purchasing the offsets? Does the option of purchasing offsets make it easier for individuals and companies continue with their everyday practices (that may be unsustainable), rather than working towards changing them?
Scientists and environmentalists tend to agree that if you’re looking to have the greatest impact on overall greenhouse gas emissions, stakeholders should look first to decrease their own emissions in any way possible. For an individual, there a number of actions one could take, such as reducing travel on airplanes, utilizing public transportation, limiting meat intake, and installing LEDs at home. Larger companies can do even more with actions like installing a solar panel system, utilizing video conferences instead of initiating business trips, promoting and rewarding the use of company fleets for transportation, and more.
Many opponents to carbon offsets also argue about many offset’s abilities to be credible. While there are many offset projects that carry industry certifications, there are also those that do not. As a result, they may not contribute to a permanent or additional project with accurate measurements of offset potential.