Carbon Offsetting

Accepting that some emissions are too difficult to reduce to zero, and aviation is one of those, the concept of net-zero has gained traction.

‘Net zero’ refers to achieving an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere. Like a bath with the taps on, an approach to achieving this balance can either be to turn down the taps (the emissions) or to drain an equal amount down the plug (removals of emissions from the atmosphere, including storage for the emissions such as ‘carbon sinks’). In a net-zero scenario, the residual emissions from these sectors are allowed as long as they are offset by removing emissions using natural or engineered sinks – gross negative emissions.[1]

Carbon offsetting is credible as a way of achieving net-zero emissions and we have seen airlines deciding to include offsetting in the ticket price or to encourage passengers to buy offsets. The price of carbon offsets is an issue. If the price is low more people and companies take them up, more offsetting takes place. But if offsetting is cheaper than reducing carbon emissions, offsetting will reduce the incentives necessary to drive technical development. Offsetting may simply facilitate business as usual. If the offsets are poor quality and do not effectively reduce carbon emissions then net zero cannot be achieved this way.

There is a second issue, time. The gases emitted by a plane immediately contribute to global warming and to the “bathtub” of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If the limit of our ambition is to reach net-zero at some point in the future then the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to rise stoking global warming.

The offsetting proposition is based on “the user pays”. The consumer rather than the producer pays.  It is a market-based approach based on the idea that the most efficient allocation of resources occurs when consumers pay the full cost of the goods that they consume.

But there are at least three problems

  1. While it is obviously the case that cheap offsetting is the worst kind, the “seller” can defend their offset with no real risk of challenge – snake oil salesmen are thriving. Shell, for many a reputable brand, has announced that it will offset the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from customers’ fuel purchases on their behalf. The energy firm is planning to roll the initiative out across 1,000 Shell UK service stations. Easyjet as to do the same for airline passengers. CORSIA will come online soon.
  2. If the consumer pays or the offsets are available cheaply and the producer can afford to pay the offset without a large negative impact on profitability,  then there is no incentive to drive the development and adoption of new technology.

  3. The greenhouse gases which are emitted immediately contribute to global warming. The offset takes years to compensate. Water flows into the bath faster than it leaves and the bath overflows.

Carbon and Climate Change
Cheat Neutral
Cheat Neutral shorter version
Current data for atmospheric CO2 is measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Measurements are made and reported independently co2now.org
Spiralling global temperatures

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