Should you offset your carbon footprint?
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
There is a lot of confusion over carbon offsetting. In fact, I found the whole subject to be a bit of a minefield. After listening in on conversations at work, looking into the company we use to offset our flights, and doing some research of my own, I'm feeling a bit more confident of what I think. Since I'd done the research anyway, I thought I'd share it with all of you in case any of you are confused like I was.
Carbon footprints 👣
What is a carbon footprint? We all have one, simply by living. Your carbon footprint is the "measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide" (Carbon Footprint). The World Bank tracks global emissions and they estimate that a UK citizen emits 6.5 tonnes of CO2/year (last updated in 2014).
However, when it comes to measuring ones own personal footprint it gets a little tricky. There is a lot of variation in carbon calculators, which considering the need for accuracy I find incredibly shocking (how have we not established a universal standard for measuring something so important?).
Some good calculators do seem to exist however. The issue is that most of the good ones involve a lot of detail and take a while to fill out. For example the Carbon Footprint calculator and the Resurgence calculator are thought to be quite accurate (The Guardian) but involve a lot of detail. Those that don't aren't nearly as accurate, for obvious reasons. The WWF's calculator is simple and easy to understand, but the questions are very broad.
Before we delve into the world of carbon offsetting, I wanted to start by saying that carbon offsetting isn't our golden express ticket out of the climate crisis. Offsetting our carbon won't stop climate change, and that is because we need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) we emit and we need to remove GHGs from the atmosphere. These two actions combined are truly what can save us from ecological breakdown. However, carbon offsetting does have a role to play.
However, not all carbon offsetting schemes are equal. The most common options for carbon offsetting are: removal of CO2 from the atmosphere or investment in climate positive projects. Both are briefly outlined below.
Carbon removal by planting trees or trapping CO2 in the soil is the most true to its purpose. This method truly offsets carbon as the amount of CO2 that you emit (by flying or driving etc.) is removed, if somewhere else, from the atmosphere. This is because trees and sustainable farming methods drawdown CO2 and trap it (Nori). This is important because the levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are already higher than they should be. “Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years—warming the planet—the only way to stop the most severe effects of climate change is by balancing the total stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This can only be achieved through carbon removal” (Nori, FAQ: Why is carbon removal necessary to stop climate change? Isn’t carbon reduction enough?). Therefore, projects that remove CO2 from the atmosphere are of great value.
Climate positive projects include initiatives that seek to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and that reduce energy consumption or use of fossil fuels by implementing energy efficient measures (such as clean cooking stoves and energy efficient light bulbs) (UN Carbon Offset Platform). Whilst these measures do no not remove carbon already in the atmosphere they do reduce the likelihood of future emissions by providing clean alternatives to current activities.
Two suggested platforms
These are in order of preference based on the methods used by each platform.
Nori's approach to carbon offsetting is pretty unique. They sequester (read: remove) carbon from the atmosphere and trap it in the soil, which also improves soil health, lowers the use of chemical fertilisers, reduces pollution, and makes fields more drought resistant (Nori).
They do this by supporting farmers who use sustainable farming practices to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, for a minimum of 10 years. This process is verified by an independent third party who also quantifies the carbon removal, which is then listed on Nori's marketplace. You then buy the carbon removal, paying the farmer for the ownership of the carbon. Nori even give you a certificate to prove it.
As far as cost goes, Nori sells carbon removal tokens at $15/tonne. There are various purchasing options. You can calculate your personal or family's yearly footprint - unfortunately the calculator they suggest only works in America. Or you can offset the carbon footprint of your flights. For example, offsetting a flight from London Heathrow airport to New York JFK airport would cost you £7.68 (Average flight emissions per passenger derived from the ICAO emissions methodology, as suggested by Nori).
Planting trees is one of the most important climate solutions available to us. Offset Earth work with The Eden Reforestation Projects to plant millions of trees each year. The Eden Reforestation Projects “hire the poorest of the poor to grow, plant and guard to maturity native species forest on a massive scale”. This method results in positive societal and economic advantages as well as climate positive ones.
As well as planting trees, Offset Earth invests in CO2 reduction projects with a Gold Standard certification. While this is not the most effective method of carbon offsetting, it is nonetheless important.
Offset Earth offer a subscription system, whereby you pay monthly to offset your carbon footprints. There are three kind of subscriptions, based on the amount you want to offset. The smallest costs £4.50/month (and includes 12 trees planted every month, and 14 tonnes of CO2 prevented or removed in the year), while the largest subscription costs £18/month (and includes 48 trees planted each month, and 56 tonnes of CO2 prevented or removed in the year).
Should you offset?
I hope by this point you've seen that this isn't a very simple question. There are lots of problems with offsetting - mainly that we think of it as a get out of jail free card. We shouldn't use carbon offsetting as a way to allow us to continue to live as we currently do. Whether we offset our lifestyles or not, the earth cannot sustain our current patterns of living. We have to change.
However, in some cases there are things we can't change or goals that will take a few years to achieve. In these cases carbon offsetting provides a great opportunity. To mitigate negative impact now, in the places you can't change, so that we don't fall into the 'all or nothing' party.
So should you offset your footprint? My advice would be yes, partly. First things first, work out you footprint (to the nearest ballpark 😉). Once you have that you can work out areas that you can easily reduce yourself. The WWF calculator splits your footprint into areas such as travel, home, food, and stuff, which will help you to work out your steps for reduction. Only after you've decided what you will cut down on or cut out completely, should you look at what to offset.
The ideal would be to cut your footprint as much as possible and then offset the rest. At the very least consider offsetting your flights, it doesn't cost as much as you'd think! And if you can't afford to do that, it might be time to start thinking about what the earth can afford. Because the numbers are racking up and the earth can't pay our way forever, her balance is getting dangerously low.
I hope that this has given you a bit of clarity around the tricky subject of carbon footprints and offsetting. And even more than that, I hope it has provided you with a path to thinking about how, in this new decade, you will greater love our earth.