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Feature: Will we still need carbon offsetting in a net-zero world?

With the race to net-zero well and truly underway, companies, corporations and governments now have to start thinking seriously about how they will achieve their ambitious pledges. 

In some respects, reducing greenhouse gas emissions can seem quite simple – stop using fossil fuels, electrify your transport fleet and invest in renewable energy.

But achieving a fully net-zero society will require us to work a bit harder. We live in a society that is built around our reliance on fossil fuels, so moving away from this will require us to fundamentally rethink every aspect of our daily lives.

For example, if you look at a supermarket, it may have relatively low carbon emissions in-store and would find it quite easy to reach net-zero, but when you look at its supply chain, meaning all of the products that they sell, then the solution becomes more complex.

Supermarkets are filled with food and products that are produced, grown, shipped and transported from the factory or supplier to the shop floor, and to do this, it takes energy.

Take the humble banana, a staple fruit in the average UK diet, yet banana’s come largely from Ecuador, a country that is 5,726 miles away from the UK.

It is estimated that one single banana has a carbon footprint of 80g, in the UK we eat over 5 billion bananas every single year, equating to 400,000 tonnes of CO2.

Reducing these emissions is a big task, we simply do not have the climate to grow bananas at home in the UK, and at the moment we do not have a carbon-neutral way to transport products such vast distances. So unless, as a society, we make the mutual decision to only eat produce grown in our country, then the only way to reduce these emissions is by removing this carbon from the atmosphere in another way, for example by using a carbon offset scheme.

Carbon offsetting is the action or process of compensating for carbon dioxide emissions by participating in schemes designed to make equivalent reductions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

There is now an abundance of carbon offsetting schemes available, all charging a different price and promising you different activities to reduce your emissions.

However, of course, this solution comes with its own set of problems.

Mike Childs, head of science at Friends of the Earth tells Environment Journal: ‘Fundamentally it is extremely difficult to find a project that can actually deliver the carbon offset that you’re looking for.

‘Firstly, you have the problem of permanence.

‘When you’re investing in natural climate solutions, you’re assuming that the carbon will stay locked up for hundreds if not thousands of years, but how do you guarantee that? Trees can be cut down, destroyed or die, there is often no way to control that.

‘Also, how do you ensure the credibility of the project? Who will guarantee that it will absorb the amount of carbon that it says it will?’

There are some companies that are aiming to defeat these problems by verifying the credibility and success of any carbon offsetting project. For example, Gold Standard, which was created by the non-profit organisation WWF and is now seen by many as the benchmark certification label in the carbon market.

Gold Standard verify the projects that are being used to offset emissions by using various technologies to measure the emissions and then issuing carbon credits.

Sarah Leugers, director of communications at Gold Standard explains: ‘If a company like Mars decides that they want their chocolate bars to be carbon neutral, they can purchase credits from a project that we have certified.

‘But, before this, it’s absolutely imperative that companies are reducing their emissions in line with science both at the production and supply level and then for the emissions that they can’t reduce, they can abate by offsetting.

‘Consumers would be right to look further than a company saying they’re carbon neutral, that’s great but are they actually reducing their own carbon footprint?’

As more and more businesses realise the complexity of reaching net-zero, inevitably there will be a dramatic increase in the number of companies purchasing carbon offsets, thus driving demand and consequently prices.

Chris Twinn, the founder of Twinn Sustainability Innovation and an expert in carbon offsetting schemes says: ‘Many people are buying offsets now because they’re cheap, but that’s going to change as they become more popular.

‘In the past, we have seen a lot of land grabbing and there are fears that as carbon offsetting schemes continue to increase we will see a rise in this.

‘Come 2050 when we are living in a net-zero society, offsetting projects will become even less, buildings will be retrofitted, we will have renewable energy and there will be limited space left to plant trees.

‘Carbon offsetting buys time, but real investment is needed to really achieve zero-carbon.’

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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