Are carbon offsets merely ‘greenwashing’, or are they part of the solution?

“This is greenwashing,” interrupted Greta Thunberg and Greenpeace’s Jennifer Morgan at COP26’s panel on carbon offsetting, before challenging representatives from BP, Shell, and many of the biggest financial institutions present at the panel.

According to Greenpeace, carbon offsetting is “tree planting window dressing, aimed at distracting from ecosystem destruction”. But, with a sophisticated set of certifications across multiple authorities, internationally recognised systems of carbon footprint calculation, and now recognition at the world’s premier conference on climate change action, what is the truth of the matter?

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsets are a method which companies and individuals use to compensate for their emissions by funding an equivalent carbon dioxide saving elsewhere. With everyday actions consuming energy and producing carbon emissions, such as driving, flying, and heating buildings, carbon offsetting can be used to balance out these emissions.

Offsetting can be achieved in a variety of ways, such as supporting the construction of renewable energy projects to replace fossil fuel-fired power plants, increasing energy efficiency by funding insulation projects, and using more-efficient vehicles for transportation, or via carbon sequestration in soils and forests created by tree-planting.

Climate activists, however, say that offsetting gives a false impression that there is a way out of the crisis without every government and business cutting their own emissions, which leads to delaying or dampening ambition to do the real work.

The net-zero pledges that drive the carbon offset market, they argue, assume that there are no limits to compensate one’s own emissions with reductions or increased carbon removal elsewhere, and ignore the fact that plants need time to grow, even though cutting fossil fuel emissions offers immediate results.

Nature-based carbon offset solutions

EcoAct, an Atos company, are an accredited climate finance specialist and offsetting project developer. They say that, with the urgent global goal of net-zero, offsetting is helping many businesses and organisations to achieve their carbon neutral goals whilst they continue to reduce their emissions.

Mathilde Mignot, head of portfolio and partnerships for nature-based solutions at EcoAct, says that the amount of money that is spent on carbon offset schemes has increased dramatically over the last few years, for several reasons.

“First, because companies are getting the budget to invest. Net-zero is becoming a topic which is at the heart of many businesses core principles, and it is not only the big tech companies like Google and Microsoft which are acting to clean up their activities. They are putting a lot more money into trying to achieve their ambitious climate goals.

“Then, there may be a lot of projects, but there also a lot of demand. It is a case of trying to manage these demands and putting more value on ecosystems as the market increases to help save them.”

Studies certainly support this. A report published in June 2021 presents an analysis of the future demand and supply for voluntary carbon credits, which was conducted by Trove Research and University College London, and shows a rapid increase in the market, doubling over the last three to four years to 95 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2020. All credit types have become more popular, but especially nature-based solutions, such as the ones offered by EcoAct.

“Because of the objectives set out by the Paris Agreement, we decided to focus on nature-based solutions on a national level within France, but also at an international level,” explains Mignot.

“So, for example, we are investing in the 1000-hectare programme in Myanmar to restore mangrove forests, while also continuing the great work we do in promoting the use of efficient, low smoke LPG cookstoves in places like Sudan, boosting the carbon sequestration of soils, and improving access to water.”

Ensuring the legitimacy of purchased offsets

Concerns over the practice persist, however. Last year, an investigation by Bloomberg Green revealed that The Nature Conservancy and GreenTrees, two companies who provide carbon offsets to the market, either generate money to preserve forests that are not in danger of being harvested or take credit for planting trees that already exist.

A robust set of standards and measurements is needed, then, to confirm the validity of offset purchases.

Atos, and subsequently EcoAct, are the only French company that is associated with the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance (ICROA), an organisation which, through its Code of Best Practice, aims to define international best practice for offset-inclusive carbon management.

ICROA accredited organisations commit to performing carbon measurement in accordance with international standards such as the WRI/WBCSD greenhouse gas protocols and ISO 14064, use credible carbon credits in accordance with those standards, encourage clients to set challenging targets that go beyond business-as-usual, and use third-party registries and retire or remove carbon credits used for offsetting.

“Sometimes it is easy to just buy up credits because they are available,” surmises Mignot. “But it goes against the best practice principles that are set out by ICROA. It is not enough to just plant some trees and leave it at that. Where is the methodology? How can the offset be proven? Are there any checks to ensure that those trees are still there?

“For us, it is a long-term strategy and commitment, and by adhering to the best practice standards set out by ICROA, gaining accreditation from them, and regularly auditing investment projects, it gives our clients a guarantee that they are putting their investments in a good place.”

Working in tandem with other solutions

While carbon offsetting cannot be the sole solution to the climate crisis without businesses and governments taking responsibility to reduce CO2 emissions as much as possible, it can, however, play a part in mitigating for the remaining unavoidable emissions that cannot be cut from industrial processes.

And Mignot’s response to those who would accuse EcoAct of ‘greenwashing’?

“Come and visit our projects, and you will see how we utilise the money we raise through carbon offset schemes to provide nature-based solutions to climate change, in places like Cambodia and Myanmar. This not only benefits the planet long-term, but it is also an investment in communities which would otherwise struggle to attract funding through NGO’s or other means.

“The important thing is that we work in adherence to a set of accountability standards to ensure the quality of the actions we take. It is the only way to show how serious we are about being a part of the solution to the climate crisis.”

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