Why you need to think twice about carbon offsets

J Matthew Pryor

J Matthew Pryor / January 07, 2022

3 min read––– views

We've likely all used carbon offsets in one form or another.

Many people offset their air travel which is usually a simple process at the airline checkout page.

This deceptively simple act taps into a basic human need for quick results and instant feedback.

The problem is that carbon offsets are not a complete solution to our climate woes - and in some cases might actually be making things slower.

We all know (or darn well should) that greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the earth's atmosphere are driving dangerous changes to our climate and we have to lower emissions (GHG reduction/avoidance) and remove much of what we've already released (GHG removal).

Carbon offsets are often promoted as the way to achieve these outcomes - many lives literally depend on us achieving them. However, offsets are not always the right tool for the job:

  • Offsets can enable people and organizations to avoid tackling harder problems

  • Offsets are not all the same, and to achieve impact the details are important

  • Offsets are sometimes the first choice but should usually be the last

There are no easy fixes - we can't just offset our way out of this.

Offsetting is essentially handing the problem to someone else to fix. No doubt that offsets are a hugely important transition tool to decarbonizing our economy but the complete solution is to remove the need for offsets (except in very limited circumstances).

The real work is changing how we do what we do so there are no GHG emissions attributable to that activity. To do that completely, we need to look at all three scopes of our emissions profile:

  • Scope 1: emissions from activities owned and controlled directly by us

  • Scope 2: emissions that stem from the generation of electricity, heat, or steam purchased by us

  • Scope 3: all other emissions that are owned and controlled by others, but are due to our activity

Most organizations will find that Scope 3 is where all the action is, and where efforts to directly reduce GHG emission need to focus.

When an offset becomes an inset

We need to look past the offset to the underlying activity that generated it. One tonne of carbon was removed or not emitted - definitely a good thing. Instead of letting that activity be claimed by someone else to balance out their own emitting, it's often better for it to be inset - recognized by a direct supply chain collaborator so that we can all know that the products and services we consume are natively zero-carbon.

Learn to tie your own shoelaces first

Offsets are a vital tool in transitioning to a zero-carbon economy - but they need to used correctly.

We all first need to do the hard work of lowering the emissions profile of our own activity and selecting products and services that achieve net-zero the same way.

Keep the offsets for the hard-to-crack cases where you can't find a low- or zero-carbon alternative.