carbon FootprintCarbon Offsets are responsible for a huge debate within the environmental and sustainability sectors. Do they help? Are standards adequate to achieve the goal of the scheme? Should they be banned? This article presents an argument in support of carbon offsetting, covering the basic theory and issues behind the idea.

by Peter Garvin, Green Economy Post

The carbon offsetting market is one that has come under tremendous scrutiny. Many sources have claimed that the practice is inadequate at best and totally useless at worst.

The debate goes on, but with new standards emerging and old ones being strengthened, can it still be argued that offsetting has no place in the fight against global climate change? I personally believe that carbon offsets are should be an integral part of the early stages of the battle.

Theory

The theory of carbon credits centers around the view of the world as one CO2 emitting entity. Carbon credits are generated by reducing emissions from a particular source. In doing that the overall planetary emissions are reduced.

When the credits are sold to a buyer, he/she/them have purchased the right to say that they are, in essence, producing 1 ton less carbon (per credit) than they actually are, because in theory they have financed a 1 ton reduction in overall global emissions. So, if a company producing 100 ton per annum buys 100 credits, they can claim to be carbon neutral because they have financed a global reduction in emissions of the same amount as they produce – thus effectively canceling their business emissions out in a global context.

In this example, the primary aim of offsetting has been achieved – world emissions have been reduced, and therefore credits can be viewed as a viable commodity. This is of course assuming that the credits purchased are of a high quality! This is another post in itself, but for the sake of this post we should consider an offset to be of the Gold Standard (an accolade that ensures best possible practice in emissions accounting and wider sustainable development.

Problems
Problems arise when a company buys credits to allow it to produce more emissions without running into legislative problems. This occurs mainly under emissions trading schemes where emissions are capped and companies must attempt to stay within them. If they fail, there is an option to buy offsets to discount the amount they go over. This is a difficult one to judge.

Yes, it can be said that in this way offsets allow companies to carry on producing more than they should, but as offsets only came about due to these emissions trading schemes, it can be argued that the emissions levels of the companies buying to avoid legislation are dropping anyway as a result of the constriction of the scheme, and that by offsetting excess, emissions reduction targets are being met in a worldwide context if not in a local one. The overall goal is still achieved.
It is true that the cleaning up of emissions in developed countries does need to take place, but as any environmental professional knows, this is neither a straight forward nor rapid process. Carbon offset trading, by placing a price on emissions, brings emissions reduction to the attention of company directors. It applies a cost that can be reduced and thus drives environmental improvement.

So, for me, the answer to the question “Carbon Offsetting: Deal or No Deal” is a definite “Deal”.  After all, is there a better solution in the mean time?

© 2009 – 2010, peter.garvin. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: peter.garvin (7 Articles)

I am a recent Clean Technology MSc Graduate with a keen interest in all elements of Green Business. My main areas of experience are in carbon footprinting, reduction and offsetting. I have a strong desire to extent my expertise in many directions, particularly that of sustainability management.

  • Ricky Carter

    I do not think that carbon offsets are practical simply because it will give people an out . If they can buy someones credits then they have the right to say that they are complying when they are not. All people and or corporations should be held to the same standards. We should not allow any group that has money to buy off some one.

    • Peter Garvin

      Rick,

      Thanks for your comment. Would you not agree, though, that by adding such financial implications to non-compliance (ie charging for those emissions above the limit) will promote actions to reduce emissions to within the limit? Even in the current environmentally aware business world, it is still finance that dictates action for the most part.

  • Ferd

    Buying credits does not reduce pollution – buyers still pollute just as much, they just appear to pollute less (on paper). Credits are just a fee, and until these fees are huge buyers will find it cheaper to buy credits than to actually reduce their pollution. And where is this credit money going? There is no proof that it is spent to reduce further pollution. It’s just more political grandstanding and backroom wink-wink gratification while we all continue to choke and gasp.

    • http://GreenEconomyPost Peter Garvin

      Ferd,

      I agree with you totally on the fact that until credits become more expensive than abatement, companies will continue to pollute. However, is it not better that in the mean time, while these schemes rise in popularity and become more expensive through increasingly stringent legislation, offsets go at least some way to reducing world emissions? The trransition period to one of abatement being the only option will be a long one, and so in the mean time why not use this technique?
      You make a good point that buying credits does not reduce pollution of the firm purchasing them, as would happen in an ideal world, but it does, if done properly, reduce worldwide pollution.

  • http://www.taigacompany.com Julie Urlaub

    Carbon offsetting addresses the end of a lifecycle approach; whereas, the initial focus should be placed on initial reduction and new habits.  However, I think there is a role for offsets.

    • Offsetting can be a partial solution that complements other approaches
    • Offsetting can be seen as part of maintaining the balance of life
    • Carbon offsets offers a path to eco action and raises eco awareness
    • Offsetting schemes can be used as an interim measure until other solutions are developed – efficient emission-free fuels and renewable energy sources.

    • http://GreenEconomyPost Peter Garvin

      Julie,

      I agree that offsetting should never be the only emission reduction measure a company pursues. I would only recommend their use after footprinting and reduction strategies have been employed. I like your arguements for the place of offsetting, particularly points 2 and 4. For me point 4 sums the whole thing up. Use offsets, after emissions have been reduced as far as possible with current technology (and within best available practice for that industry), as an interim measure.

  • http://www.avogadro.net William Barnes

    Most of us still live in free market economies and therefore if a solution to a problem can be bought, it’s a viable option. If the price goes up over time, it helps bring the issue to the board room. It’s only then that business leaders stay engaged in driving towards a solution. If we take away off-sets, major capitalist players will elect to chase away regulations through their lobbyists. Then the lobbyists get rich and none of us see progress. If companies truly succeed in lowering GHG emissions and offer credits to the marketplace, they are “green” players and become darlings in the consumer marketplace, again a winning situation.

    • http://GreenEconomyPost Peter Garvin

      William,

      An excellent point. What do you think the role of offsets should be long term?

  • http://www.organisethis.co.uk Charlie Banks

    We encourage our clients to reduce their negative impact and change the way in which the work first, before considering offsets.

    Offsetting should be used as a last measure and doens’t always have to be planting a tree (how long before the tree has grown will it actually start to reduce CO2?) and we encourage companies to invest the money into local community projects.

    • http://GreenEconomyPost Peter Garvin

      Charlie,

      What company do you represent? I think it is a great idea to advise investment in community projects. Do you mean offset projects overseas or something closer to home?

      I strongly agree that it doesn’t always have to be planting a tree. The arguements against this form of offsetting are considerable, including also the fact that trees can easily die, especially when young and if planted by less reputable offset providers and thus not monitored to maturity.