Promoted as a way for companies and individuals to neutralize their carbon emissions, carbon offsets claim to fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. But are they truly a genuine climate solution or just a clever form of greenwashing?
As the need for urgent climate action grows stronger and stronger, the plethora of “solutions” grows, too. Among them is the idea of carbon offsets, sometimes called carbon credits. This controversial concept has gained a spotlight as more and more companies use it in their sustainability initiatives- and many critics question its viability.
Skeptics argue that carbon offsets merely provide a guilt-free pass for polluters. And they question their effectiveness in actually tackling the root causes of climate change.
However, advocates believe that when done right, carbon offsets can play a crucial role in curbing emissions and driving the transition to a greener economy.
So, can such a controversial, unregulated option be a legitimate climate solution? Like most answers in the world of climate change and solutions, the truth still unfolding. Between the many facts (and more than a few lies), we’ll aim to uncover if (and how) offsets are best used, and for how long.
What Are Carbon Credits?
To understand the debate surrounding carbon offsets, you should understand how they work. Carbon offsets allow individuals or organizations to compensate for their carbon emissions by investing in projects that reduce or remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.
These projects typically involve renewable energy installations, reforestation initiatives, or methane capture programs. Offsets are typically measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and can be purchased from any number of providers.
The idea behind carbon offsets is that by funding these projects, individuals and organizations can effectively neutralize their carbon footprint.
Are All Carbon Offsets Legitimate?
The idea that one can purchase a “credit” to essentially neutralize their footprint sounds dreamy. But it’s only true if carbon offsets reduce emissions as much as they claim to.
Carbon offsets are a relatively new climate solution. Because of this, systems to regulate and certify them are still being developed. The idea of offsetting carbon was developed in the 1980s as a way for more established countries to offset their impact by investing in carbon mitigation in developing countries.
Offsets received initial excitement, although “no one ever thought carbon offsets were going to save the world.” Emission trading gained popularity when the Kyoto Protocol was introduced. But, the carbon market that was created for the Kyoto Protocol, a compliance offset program, subsequently unraveled, which made room for the largely unregulated voluntary offset market we have today.
Compliance Offset Programs
These are carbon credit programs regulated by national and international protocol. COP credits allow carbon credit trading between countries that are above their emissions cap and those that are below it. These credits are highly structured and regulated, so their ability to offset emissions is fairly accurate. However, double-counting, where a country sells a credit and also claims it as its own, has occurred.
Voluntary Carbon Offset Markets
This type of offset was developed in 2005 as a way for businesses and individuals to purchase carbon credits. Voluntary offsets don’t have the strict regulatory requirements of compliance credits, and this is where things get tricky.
Most voluntary offsets are regulated by nonprofit organizations such as the Gold Standard. These bodies offer third-party verification to ensure that the carbon credits bought and sold through their program offer the exact reduction they claim.
But not all offsets are bought and sold this way. Some are sold without third-party verification, and it is nearly impossible to ensure that the projects being funded actually deliver the promised emission reductions. There are serious issues and in some cases, over-calculating emission reductions from a project has been reported.
This lack of transparency and accountability has led to accusations of greenwashing, which threatens the reputation of carbon offsetting as a whole.
Controversy And Carbon Credits
The controversy surrounding carbon offsets stems from several issues. One of the main concerns is the lack of standardization and oversight in the carbon offset market. Without clear guidelines and regulations for every carbon credit, it’s difficult to ensure that the projects being funded deliver the promised emission reductions. Unclear data and a lack of transparency mean that businesses can claim offsets that don’t neutralize their footprint. This effectively makes them appear ‘green’ when there is no environmental benefit to their actions.
The second point of contention has to do with the system of offsets as a whole. Some argue that by purchasing offsets, individuals and organizations are essentially buying the right to continue emitting greenhouse gases without actually reducing their emissions. This, they argue, creates a false sense of environmental responsibility, and doesn’t address the root causes of climate change.
The Case For Offsets
It’s clear that carbon offsets aren’t the complete climate solution, but many believe they can be an essential part of our current climate action plan. Here’s why:
Funding Climate Solutions
If you’ve ever looked at the cost of purchasing an electric vehicle or switching your home to solar, you know that shifting to greener options isn’t cheap. For communities and businesses looking to move to renewable energy or repair past environmental damage, carbon credits can make these changes possible. With the funding from offsets, more projects that help move us to a clean power grid become possible.
Benefiting Businesses In A Green Transition
As much as we’d like to snap our fingers and remove all emissions from business production and our personal lives, it's not an overnight change. For businesses (and individuals) that are working to reduce their emissions as much as possible, carbon credits make it possible for them to “payback” what they can’t reduce.
Carbon offsetting can be part of a legitimate strategy to combat climate change, but it must be done with the utmost attention to the big picture of emissions. And it must be accompanied with a clear reduction strategy that is continually improved.
Transparency And Accountability: The Climate Neutral Certification
Carbon credits are simply not enough to move our economy towards a sustainable future. But, until it’s possible to fully decarbonize, properly certified carbon offsets can be one part of a larger climate solution. Using carbon offsets as a “free pass” to continue polluting is not the answer we need. Instead, offsets are best used strategically as part of a decarbonization plan. And that’s where the Climate Neutral certification comes into play.
Climate Neutral Certification is a rigorous, third-party certification that holds businesses accountable for their carbon emissions. In the certification process, the entire carbon footprint of business operations is measured. Then, companies are required to create a reduction strategy with quantifiable goals. Each year, these goals must be met to maintain Climat Neutral Certification. Then (and only then), are carbon offsets purchased to cover any additional emissions that can’t be immediately reduced.
This certification offers a global, standardized way to measure and verify carbon offsets. And for this reason, it’s currently the gold standard for accountability and transparency in an arena that’s too often clouded with misinformation.
Responsibly Navigating Carbon Offsets
To ensure that carbon offsets are part of a genuine climate solution and not just a form of greenwashing, companies, and individuals must approach them with caution and transparency.
On their own, carbon credit commitments tend to be part of a greenwashing scheme. It’s far too easy for businesses to commit to “net-zero” emissions by only purchasing carbon credits. And that plan only keeps us farther from a truly sustainable future.
For businesses that are actively working to reduce their emissions (and by this, we mean doing everything possible), carbon credits are an immediate way to “give back” as work is done to achieve true net-zero emissions with no need for offsets. Any business that claims carbon offsets should show a clear reduction plan, too.
As consumers navigating offsetting and business responsibility, it’s hard to know where to start. The Climate Neutral Certification is a clear way to know that a brand is making a true effort to curb its carbon footprint. And while this certification alone isn’t enough to make a business “green,” it’s a good start. Thanks to its strict requirements for clear reduction plans, and a network of verified offset programs, Climate Neutral is paving the way for a more truthful and beneficial use of carbon offsets.