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Carbon Offsetting

February 6, 2021
Harold Goodwin
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10 myths about net-zero targets and carbon offsetting, busted

Myth 3: Net-zero targets as well as carbon offsetting increase the incentives to reduce emissions because emissions are allocated a cost. Misleading.
The incentive decreases as long as it is financially more advantageous and socially acceptable to buy low-cost carbon offsets from abroad than it is to reduce emissions at home. Promises of future negative emissions also reduce the incentive to cut carbon emissions now, as their costs in decades to come are heavily discounted.
Myth 7: Tree plantations capture more carbon than leaving old forests undisturbed. Misleading.
Old forests can contain centuries worth of carbon, captured in trees and soils, and can continue to capture carbon for hundreds of years. It is better to cut fewer trees, so that the carbon already stored is not released. The carbon released by felled trees can take a hundred years or more to be recaptured by new trees. We do not have that time.
Myth 9: Each ton of carbon dioxide is the same and can be treated interchangeably. False.
Carbon dioxide removal tomorrow cannot compensate for emissions today. Emissions from luxury consumption should not be considered equal to emissions from essential food production. Storage of carbon in plants and soils cannot compensate for emissions of fossil carbon.~
Myth 10: Products and travel can be “climate neutral” or even “climate positive”. False.
Products and travel that are sold as “climate neutral” or “climate positive” due to offsetting, do still have a carbon footprint. Such marketing is misleading and may even lead to more emissions as the offsetting incentivises increased consumption. We contribute more to climate solutions by consuming and travelling less.

There are 10 Myths!

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting has been very popular as a way of addressing carbon emissions, particularly from aircraft. The simple premise allows individuals and companies to invest in environmental projects to balance out their carbon footprints.

On the face of things carbon offsetting seems credible, however, it has been the subject of intense scrutiny. Read on to learn more about carbon offset schemes and the issues behind them.

Carbon offsetting and ‘Net-zero’

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 a potentially 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 with this:

  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.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Growth

Shell has a DRIVE CARBON NEUTRAL product offering a carbon offsetting service through its customers' Shell Card. The is a "Business as Usual offer" As they say on their website 'You don’t even have to change the way you work – Shell automatically calculates your well-to-wheel carbon emissions and offsets these through Shell’s global portfolio of nature-based solutions projects.'

"Shell is encouraging governments to put a price on carbon. This aims to incentivise industry, the power sector and consumers to improve energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions and help encourage projects such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) facilities and nature-based solutions. These comprise all activities related to the protection, creation or redevelopment, of natural ecosystems – such as forests, grasslands and wetlands – to help absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. They can help deliver many other benefits, including improvements in biodiversity, water quality, flood protection and livelihoods. "

Is Carbon Offsetting too good to be true?

56 businesses and individuals working in tourism have joined Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency accepting that this “requires immediate and radical action by our governments, our industry and our business.”

Much Better Adventures founded Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency to encourage its “peers, competitors and partners in the travel industry” to address the issue and do more. Those who declare an emergency commit to develop a plan, transparently report on progress annually, focus on cutting carbon emissions, work to grow the community and call “for urgent regulatory action to accelerate the transition towards zero-carbon air travel.”

Much Better Adventures are “not going to be making any grand claims of carbon neutrality or carbon positivity by simply paying to ‘offset’ our emissions. We consider such claims to be misleading and a distraction from the real work of cutting emissions in the first place.”

Responsible Travel has signed up, pointing to their call for a green flying duty, calling on its customers to “Fly less and make it count” and working with its tour operator members to promote low carbon holidays highlighting train and overland routes.  They are clear about carbon offsets: “we stopped offering them ten years ago. We don’t believe they work and think they distract from the urgent need for reduction.”

Increasing numbers of travellers are concerned about the carbon emissions generated by their travel, and it is reasonable to assume that those predisposed to travel responsibly will have concerns about their carbon emissions. I have heard a good deal of anecdotal evidence of this over the last couple of months. Eliane Glaser in her Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies in Modern Life has pointed to how difficult it is to fully understand the products we purchase.

Carbon offsets offer an attractive, relatively low-cost way for travellers to salve their consciences, not unlike a medieval pardon, facilitating business as usual by buying a permit to pollute. Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, points to the prevalence of initiatives which appear to do good, tweaking things that change nothing fundamental but which distract the public. Regulatory action by government, for example by taxing aircraft fuel, is resisted.

ICAO established a Technical Advisory Body (TAB) to provide advice on which carbon offsets aviation might use.  They are very critical of the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The TAB concluded "Due to the many problems associated with this scheme, no CDM credits should be used under the Paris Agreement and all projects should be re-assessed before they are transitioned into a new system." more here

More on the question of carbon offsetting 

22 November 2019 FT  Carbon offset gold rush is distracting us from climate change

04 Apri 2012 The inconvenient truth of carbon offsets: Kevin Anderson explains why he refused to purchase a carbon offset, and why you should steer clear of them too.

Problem with Carbon Offsetting

Carbon Offsetting is an attractive option, a one-stop negotiable solution which allows the airline, tour operator or hotel to continue with business as usual.  But for the individual or business, it is a complex purchase. A 2017 study of offsets, commissioned by the European Commission, found that 85 per cent of carbon offset projects under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) had failed to reduce emissions. This research clearly shows that many of even the very best offset schemes don’t work and that facilitating offsets without linking them to emission avoidance and reduction will never achieve the levels of overall emissions reductions that are needed.

There is even more reason to be sceptical of voluntary offset schemes, cap and trade permits have their own problems. If you are retailing a carbon offset, it is presumably your liability. A disaffected consumer may come back to you for financial compensation for mis-selling and inflict collateral reputational damage.

  1. As you fly, CO2 immediately enters the atmosphere and contributes to greenhouse gas warming. Rates of sequestration vary, and precise calculation is not possible. It is generally reckoned that more than half of the CO2 emitted is removed from the atmosphere within a century and that some fraction (about 20%) of emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere for many thousands of years. The pollution contributes immediately to global warming but it will take the offset years to sequester the carbon emitted.
  2. Many offset schemes rely on planting trees. UK native broadleaf trees are estimated to absorb about 1 tonne over a full lifetime of 100 years. The carbon emitted by your flight does immediate harm but takes a long time to benefit the tree you planted – assuming the tree lives a full life and many do not. They rot on the forest floor emitting greenhouse gases.
  3. Some offsetting programmes have offsets in the bank, so it is possible to purchase an already implemented offset. There are two risks associated with this kind of offset: (a) how many times that offset has been sold and (b) how this fulfils the additionality criteria. Offsets are supposed to be additional, removing carbon that would not otherwise have been removed from the atmosphere. Purchasers need to be careful only to buy offsets which are properly registered and certified REDD+ ones. If you are retailing offsets ensure that the liability rests with the offset provider
  4. Where offsetting is delivered in ways that create no incentive to reduce emissions it is similar to a medieval pardon. Offsetting is cheap and if the consumer can be encouraged to make a voluntary contribution then there is no cost to the airline or operator. If offsetting becomes widely accepted it will reduce the pressure for reductions in carbon emissions and foster business as usual.

The UK’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy uses a short-term traded value of carbon for public policy appraisal. For 2020 the central value is £13.84 and the high value £27.69 per tonne. By 2030 it is expected that the central value will be £80.83 and high value £121.24.

Offsets are cheap. London – New York return in economy:

Provider Tonnes Carbon Offset Cost/tonne

www.clevel.co.uk

1.82

£27.12

£14.90

www.carbonfootprint.com

0.88

£5.28

£6.00

www.myclimate.org

1.8

£39.00

£21.66

atmosfair.de

2.7

£54.00

£20.00

FlyGreen is a booking engine which offers a choice of flights and will off set the client’s carbon emission for free by building solar panel projects in India. There is a perverse incentive in the carbon market to minimise the carbon that needs to be offset and then to price the offset as low as possible. If offsets are available at low costs, there is little or no incentive to reduce emissions further; offsets become medieval pardons. The range of carbon emission values calculated for a return economy flight London-New York is cause for great concern. There’s broad agreement among environmentalists that a fair price for carbon, reflecting all of its environmental costs, etc. should be well over USD50. It is difficult to trust a market where the cost of offsetting ranges so widely. It is surely difficult in these circumstances to have a high level of confidence in what you are purchasing or recommending.

Offset.earth takes a different approach offering a mega offset to frequent flyers to prevent or remove four footprints worth of CO2. For £240 per year they will plant 576 trees to offset 88 tonnes of CO2, that’s £2.72 per tonne.

Is carbon offsetting better than doing nothing?

It is clearly possible to convince yourself and clients that it is, but for how long? Swimming with dolphins and visiting or volunteering in orphanages were thought to be good – until perceptions changed. As offsetting is more widely promoted it is likely to come under increasing scrutiny. For Shell Go+ customers, Shell will buy a carbon credit to offset, or compensate, for these emissions. It costs the consumer nothing: “All you have to do is scan your Shell Go+ card when you purchase your fuel and we will offset all of the emissions from the production and use of the fuel.”

There is a potential legitimate role for carbon offsetting of residual emissions that remain once polluters have done everything they can to avoid and reduce carbon emissions, but there are very few if any offset projects so far that require their buyers to make that commitment. If the travel and tourism industry wants to use carbon offsetting credibly it needs to push existing offsetting services and certifiers such as Verra or the Gold Standard to raise the bar further and sell only to customers who can demonstrate that they are avoiding and reducing emissions before offsetting just their residual impacts.

Planting indigenous trees is a good thing.  But don’t assume that they absolve you of responsibility or that they will survive long enough to remove much of the carbon emitted as you fly.

Climate change and the need to combat it is no longer a marginal issue. Even the UK’s Daily Express published Greta Thunberg’s Davos speech in full. This issue is becoming mainstream and there will be more attention focused on it.  You will need to be able to defend your offsets!

Lufthansa is encouraging passenger to voluntarily offset their flight emissions for Miles & More customers thanks to a new offer Compensaid. Customers can now see the CO2 emissions of their flight in the Miles & More app. The new application is called “mindfulflyer”. It was developed jointly by Miles & More and the Lufthansa Innovation Hub. For their commitment to climate protection, Miles & More participants will receive digital awards, such as the “Climate Supporter”, which distinguishes them as environmentally conscious travelers. These awards can be shared via social media channels to inspire other travelers to compose their flights as well. “Customer loyalty without sustainability no longer works – our customers expect solutions from us that enable climate-friendly travel,” says Sebastian Riedle, Managing Director of Miles & More GmbH. With the integration of the ‘mindfulflyer’ offer we are fulfilling this expectation while making climate-neutral travel as simple as possible.”

The Global Carbon Project has clear advice on becoming Carbon Neutral

To become carbon neutral, first, reduce all possible emissions and impacts and then contribute to a measured reduction elsewhere to balance the rest

The Global Carbon Project has published the report "Carbon Reductions and Offsets" with a number of recommendations for individuals and institutions who want to participate in this voluntary market.

Recommendations from Carbon reductions and offsets

 December 17 2020 Environmental Defence Fund backs Carbon Offsets - WHEN DONE RIGHT
High-quality carbon offsets can help businesses meet their voluntary climate goals and increasingly support the goals of the Paris climate agreement, according to a new publication from the Environmental Defense Fund with ENGIE Impact.     Recommendations 
“Today’s recommendations are a start, but as a new EDF analysis on corporate pathways to net zero emissions reveals, there’s still a lot of hard work ahead. The commitment of this group has shown there is a strong and authentic desire to get it right.”
Mark Carney, the UN special envoy for climate and former governor of the Bank of England, has cited the voluntary offset market as an “imperative” to help reduce global emissions to net zero.

Carbon and Climate Change Resources

Learn more about climate change in this short video from the BBC titled Our Planet Matters: Climate change explained:

Our Planet Matters: Climate Change Explained

Climate change: Where we are in seven charts and what

Current data for atmospheric CO2 is measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Measurements are made and reported independently co2now.org

© 2020 The Responsible Tourism Partnership 
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