The Pros and (mostly) Cons of Carbon Offsetting

POW treeplanting event in Canterbury

POW NZ is a member of the New Zealand Climate Action Network, which in turn is a member of the International Climate Action Network (CAN). Recently CAN put out a statement rejecting the practise of offsetting as a way to tackle the climate crisis. It’s made us think about what we, as an organisation, encourage the government, businesses and individuals to do.  There are some positives to carbon offsetting, but many people, companies, and countries (New Zealand!) are using it as an opportunity to continue business as usual, to not actually reduce emissions, and to pass on the work to another country. 

Read on to learn about the pros and cons of carbon offsetting and what actions the outdoor industry can take instead of/in addition to offsetting. 

New Zealand’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. This sounds ambitious and like a great plan (which it is to some extent) but to get there about two thirds of emissions reductions, won’t come from actual emissions reductions but will come from purchasing overseas offsets. We don’t know how this will happen, or how much it will cost but we’re probably going to end up trying to pay other countries to plant trees for us. It’s a ‘plant and pollute’ model that allows business to continue as usual. This is really well explained in this article. 

Some offsets are better than others

A person, a company, or a country can reduce net emissions by buying carbon offsets. But study after study show that most offsets don’t permanently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (eg a tree stores carbon while it’s growing but when it dies it’s released again). Carbon offsets can be purchased from organisations that meet strict requirements for a fairly high price. OR they can be purchased from low-quality, poorly vetted offset programs very cheaply. Most people, and the media too don’t know the difference and a lot of companies will go for the cheaper, low quality option. 

If purchasing an offset you need to do your homework and watch this John Oliver video on the topic. Some offsets just don’t actually sequester as much carbon as they say they do, and many are not permanent. In California and Oregon tens of thousands of hectares of forest were sold as carbon offsets and then burned down in the 2021 wildfires. A quality offset must result in permanent reduction of greenhouse gases.

There’s also a concern about additionality. Offset investments need to make something happen that wouldn’t have happened anyway (eg a wind farm was built that wouldn’t have been built without carbon offset investment). Some bad forestry examples are areas of trees that are already protected and there are no plans to cut the trees down, but they’ll take your money and say they are preventing trees being cut down. Read more about this in Outside Magazine’s piece here. 

There’s simply not enough land available on the planet for all the carbon offsets that have been claimed. Participants at last year’s POW summer camp learned through the climate interactive simulator that more land than twice the size of India would need to be planted to reduce global temperature rise by 0.1c. 

Carbon offsetting basics – from MeetGreen

Many offset projects are valuable in many ways. They are protecting huge portions of the Amazon, and deploying solar power at scale in rural africa but in 2020 fewer than five percent of offsets removed CO2 from the atmosphere – which is what we need to be doing.  

Planting trees has a lot of co-benefits. There’s increases in biodiversity, more homes for birds and other wildlife. Trees create shade, block wind, and increase resilience to extreme weather events like floods. Planting trees creates jobs, which in some countries can in turn save lives and communities.  Please plant as many trees as you can, and carefully consider carbon offset projects. We can and should be planting lots of trees but this is not the solution to climate change.  We need to be actually reducing emissions too.  

The biggest problem with carbon offsetting is that it doesn’t achieve any systemic change. A coal-fired power plant can be carbon neutral if they plant enough trees in Malaysia (!?!?). The blame is shifted away from the companies creating the pollution (fossil fuel industry) who keep digging up and selling coal, the power plant keeps burning it, and nothing changes. A focus on offsetting means that there’s not enough focus on social movements, public policy, citizenship or voice from the corporate sector. This is what achieves systemic change, and what  Aspen Snowmass is working hard on. 

What is more effective is spending that time and money on climate advocacy, e.g. asking for carbon taxes, higher density and healthier housing, and more public transport. OR by making actual reductions to a company’s emissions e.g. making supply chain changes, investing in EV’s and solar systems, improving building efficiency etc. But that’s harder than simply paying some money to an offset company. It requires being brave, speaking up, and challenging the status quo and doing some hard work. The outdoor industry is powerful and if our voices come together to ask for policy change we can have a much bigger impact. Connect with POW NZ and join the outdoor community to raise our voices and ask for systemic change.