There are many arguments for and against carbon offsetting programmes. Some people see the wider-reaching value they offer, while others argue that the concept is flawed. And then there are others who don’t really understand how they work.
And there’s truth in the for and against sides of the argument.
There’s no point leaping to conclusions about carbon offsetting programmes—and, most importantly, whether they can work for you—without taking a look at both sides of the coin.
Are they really a good option or just a distraction? Is this a Western fad or does it have worldwide potential? Let’s take a look.
What are offsetting programmes?
Before getting started, there’s no point launching into pros and cons of a concept that might seem abstract.
So, let’s take a second to figure out exactly what offsetting programmes are.
They are typically used by larger businesses and industries who want to ‘offset’ – or balance out – the often-unavoidable carbon emissions produced in the course of doing business.
Essentially, you make up for your emissions elsewhere.
Say, for example, a company produces lots of emissions thanks to their delivery trucks. They might reduce the impact as much as possible—loading each truck up more, making the delivery routes shorter and more economical. But they still emit a lot of damaging greenhouse gases because of the heavier load.
What do they do?
Well, they invest in an offsetting programme, such as Trees for Life. Trees for Life works in the Caledonian Forest in the Scottish Highlands, replanting trees and repopulating existing woodland in order to offset carbon emissions from elsewhere.
In fact, this was just what Buzzmove, a comparison website for removals did, when they were looking to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Now Buzzmove have their own grove in the Highlands and are pushing for the removals industry as a whole to work towards being more carbon neutral.
What are the benefits of offsetting programmes?
Now you know exactly what an offsetting programme is, and just how it can have an impact even the most unexpected of industries (like home removals). But what are the specific benefits of investing in one?
Firstly, carbon offsetting programmes can work great as a last resort for neutralising harmful emissions. As in the above example, once you’ve tried everything else you can, like investing in more efficient technology and streamlining your services, carbon offsetting schemes can work really well to write-off those remaining emissions.
Secondly, offsetting programmes—which often work in endangered natural habitats like the Scottish Highlands or smaller communities around the world—can create wider social change, beyond that of just reducing greenhouse gases.
This is even recognised by Leo Hickman, widely considered one of the concept’s loudest detractors. He has said that there’s no point disguising ‘the fact that many of the projects that carbon offsetters support are in and of themselves ‘good’ projects worthy of our support.’
Of course, that’s not to say every project is like that, so doing your research before investing is crucial. For example, you could follow the example of Buzzmove and invest in a more local programme. This allows you to really see the impact your investment has. After all, going to visit far-flung places and track how effective their programme is will only contribute further to your carbon footprint!
Are there any downsides?
However, it’s fair to say that offsetting programmes have their downsides. Doesn’t everything, after all?
The biggest con according to detractors is that offsetting programmes simply shift responsibility, allowing companies to feel ‘off the hook’ when it comes to controlling and lessening their carbon emissions. In the Independent, Sophie Morris even likened carbon offsetting schemes to buying a Diet Coke with a supersized burger, noting that it was a smokescreen allowing consumers to reduce their own guilt, rather than actually help.
This can certainly be the case, but as mentioned in the ‘upsides to carbon offsetting’ section above, offsetting programmes should simply be a last resort to neutralise unavoidable emissions. Prior to that, working to reduce carbon emissions in the first place should be a priority.
Another negative to these schemes is that sometimes the programmes themselves aren’t all that sustainable. In “Current Carbon Offset Model Won’t Work For Saudi Arabia, 3 Reasons Why” Bushra Azhar point towards to failure of Coldplay’s forest in India, planted to offset emissions generated during their tour. However, this unfortunate outcome was likely due to environmental factors and bad planning. In short, one bad apple doesn’t spoil the bunch when it comes to carbon offsetting schemes. Trees for Life forests are flourishing, for example.
That said, research is crucial. Looking for transparency and a way to see the results when using these schemes could not be more important. That’s why Buzzmove chose a programme closer to home, rather than one further afield.
It’s also important to note that, especially when trees are involved, adding to an established woodland will always be more effective than just plonking a sapling in an empty field and hoping for the best. Common sense, it seems, is also important when looking into carbon offsetting schemes.
Finally, some people criticise carbon offsetting schemes for being a Western trend, a concept that plays into our lifestyles and responsibility-shirking sensibilities.
Is carbon offsetting just a Western trend?
Well, yes. And no. Carbon offsetting can certainly be applicable worldwide. After all, every society around the world has more similarities than they would perhaps care to admit.
Take Saudi Arabia, for example, a country which Bushra Azhar said enjoys too comfortable a lifestyle for carbon offsetting to even register as useful. After all, utilities have been described as ‘dirt cheap’ and fuel can ‘cost less than a can of soda’ there. While this is perhaps the case, a country’s situation doesn’t set the tone of each individual’s mindset.
Even in places such as the US and the UK, many people blindly refuse to accept that global warming even exists. So, despite having less incentive to use carbon offsetting schemes from a financial perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t work.
Bushra Azhar argued that thanks to Saudi Arabia’s so-called ‘lavish lifestyle’, the aforementioned shirking of responsibility would come strongly into play. Once again, the same could be said for Western societies and if offsetting schemes work in those areas, why not elsewhere?
Please comment below if you think carbon offsetting just a Western trend or can work in any part of the world.