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Stop Carbon Offsetting Greenwash

May 31, 2020 8:48 PM
By Stewart Reddaway

Aeroplane (737) coming into landThe current virus has temporarily reduced carbon emissions, but climate change is still important.

Carbon offsetting is used to enable an organisation or person engaged in an activity that emits CO2 (or other Greenhouse Gas (GHG)), such as flying, to pay to support project(s) that reduce emissions so they can claim a neutral net effect on climate change. There is a wide range of such projects on offer commercially, an example being planting trees. The cost in £/ton of CO2 varies very widely, and the control and auditing of the validity of their claims is weak. Naturally, both organisations and people are tempted to opt for the cheapest, so there is pressure on projects to overclaim or be dishonest. An offsetting project must lead to additional GHG reductions over what would have happened anyway; for example, if it is profitable without subsidy (most wind or solar projects are now profitable) or is part of a country's Paris commitment, it is not valid. Double counting is of course dishonest.

Two examples of organisations that offer their customers offsetting are EasyJet and BP Target Neutral (which enables calculation of GHG emissions from various activities such as transport, and then buying carbon offsets). Both pay only about £3/ton of CO2 for offsets, which I very much doubt would stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Another example is the airline industry's CORSIA scheme, that plans to buy offsets for any future increase in emissions so they can claim to be limiting their (net) emissions; this PR greenwash will help them fend off actions by governments to curb flying.

In my view, it is also vital to take timescale into account. The emissions being offset are usually immediate, but the offset payback usually takes a long time; for example, trees usually take 50 - 100 years to reach their full carbon sequestration potential. Trees also need protection from felling or dying. Reducing GHGs is urgent, with the next 5 or 10 years particularly important.

I think LibDems should have a policy to address any abuse of offsetting. I propose that either only carbon saved in the first 10 years is counted, or, more sophisticated, future savings are discounted at, say, 7% p.a.. The latter would mean that savings in 5 years time have about 30% knocked off, in 10 years they are halved and in 20 years divided by 4.

A policy might be that any organisation that pays to offset GHG emissions must count only savings in the first 10 years and must name which external organisation has/is auditing the projects used. Named organisations can then be monitored by the government, NGOs, or journalists.