Solution or absolution?

The 5 principles required for effective offsetting

Photo: Chris Liverani

If you were a Catholic living in the Middle Ages and you happened to kill a man, odds are you believed you were headed for hell. Luckily, if you came from money, you had a straightforward way out. You could simply buy absolution, a formal discharge from all the supernatural obligations of your actions. 

Not only was this convenient, it was also institutional, and commodified. As such, different sins even came with different price tags. For example, murder by poison would set you back quite a bit more than murder by more… vanilla means. 

This decade we need to drastically reduce global carbon emissions or else we will chronically and irreversibly overheat our planet. Quite the more literal hell — considering the Australian and Californian wildfires just last year. But our tools to do so, according to people like George Monbiot, are archaic. In 2006, he equated the act of buying absolution to the current trend of buying ‘carbon offset’. 

Carbon offset is a reduction in CO2 emissions made in order to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere.

An Example

CarboCut Ltd emits 1,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, but they want to be carbon neutral. Being in the shipping business and relying on bunker fuel, they can’t stop their own emissions, so they decide to offset them instead. 

Through a third party, the company invests a bunch of money in a clean cooking stove initiative in Africa. A bunch of families are given a new stove that produces less CO2 compared to cooking with firewood, or charcoal. In fact, over the course of a year, each stove produces 1 tonne less than the alternative. So: CarboCut Ltd hands out 1,000 stoves, each with a CO2 saving of 1 tonne, which all together sum up to the company’s own emissions. Easy!

So What is the Problem?

It doesn’t work. Not always anyway – the reason for which is multi-faceted: 

  • You have different types of third-party providers with varying levels of credibility when it comes to executing a project to spec.

  • You have different types of projects whose impacts range from hypothetical (protecting a forest), to estimated (cooking stove distribution, renewable energy investment), to real (planting new forest). 

  • And then you have issues with the carbon accounting itself — given, say, that a tree takes 25 years to grow, or those cooking stoves just aren’t that clean

On the other side of the equation you have some heavyweight industries (like aviation) liberally using carbon offset, and the mechanism has been further legitimised by the UN after the Paris Agreement. Which means that, quite realistically, it’s not going away anytime soon.

If it’s not going away, we need to make it better. Cue:

The Principles

The list below is a guideline for what makes effective offset. It contains the same main principles outlined in a Google White Paper elaborating on how they decide on what projects to invest in. It’s a stellar read, assuming you’re a sucker for the process of making CO2 (bad) from manure-derived methane (20x bad). Also, I double-checked (using Google, mind — tinfoil hat on…) that these principles are established elsewhere in the literature, albeit with some variation. The fifth and final principle is our own.

1. Additionality

A project provides “additionality” when it reduces emissions that would not be reduced through other measures or incentives. 

Would the African community get energy efficient cook stoves if CarboCut Ltd hadn’t distributed them? Would the windmill you financed get built anyway? Did Google approach a manure farmer with a bag of cash and ask him to flare methane that he was planning to flare anyway? Is this opportunistic farmer laughing all the way to the bank‽ While never technically possible to prove, one must stay away from projects where the additionality is at all ambiguous, or else one cannot safely claim offset.

2. Leakage Prevention

If the existence of a carbon offset project simply moves emissions elsewhere, leakage occurs. 

Say, for example, that you pay me to preserve a forest that is about to be logged. You check in a year later, and the forest still stands. All good, right? That private jet is officially compensated for. Well, maybe. If the local area has loggers, it could very well be that they've simply moved along to the next forest – one without any protection – and gone to town on it. If so, net emissions will probably be the same.

3. Permanence

The concept of permanence simply considers the concept of leakage over longer timeframes. It refers most specifically to carbon sequestration projects. 

If you pay someone to plant a lot of trees for you, you want to:

  1. Make sure those trees stay in the ground for the 25 years they need to grow, and…

  2. Ensure they stick around for a whole lot longer than that to actually keep the carbon they’ve absorbed out of the atmosphere. 

4. Verifiability

For any carbon offset project to be considered legitimate, it must have verifiability. This entails that an objective third-party — often a specialised institution, reviews the project data and certifies the project as credible and accurate. 

5. Timeliness

A carbon offset project has timeliness if the carbon is compensated for within a reasonable timeframe. 

Given the pressure on total emissions to fall in the next decade, delays — even those of only a year or two — can be crucial in reaching those goals. Again, forest planting springs to mind. Forests are great, but a company that pollutes 1,000 tonnes CO2 today, and then plants trees that will recapture those 1,000 tonnes over 25 years, are involved in PR, not climate change mitigation. Carbon emitted now must be offset now — it’s our only chance to stop the warming before it spirals out of control. At some point soon, we just can’t put the bunny back in the box.

These principles are crucial to us at Verdn, and they guide us as we seek-out impact partners, whether that be for carbon, plastic waste, or future ones like water conservation. You can see what partners have currently passed the test on our website.

I absolve thee, until next time.

Photo: Shalone Cason