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Toby Howell AIEMA BA PGDip

The Truth About Carbon Offsetting

February 2023

If you follow the fight against climate change, you may have encountered the term 'carbon offsetting'. 

If you were anything like me, way back when you may have just thought - "let's leave that to the experts", without really understanding what carbon offsetting actually is.

Since then, I have made it my mission to understand humanity's methodologies to combat the climate emergency. It is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and awareness of how to stop ecological catastrophe is crucial; carbon offsetting has been labelled as one such method. 

However, specific offsetting systems or the companies have come under scrutiny. The companies involved have denied any wrongdoing, but carbon offsetting has been forensically analysed in recent months, primarily due to these allegations. 

In this blog, we will lift the lid on carbon offsetting, decipher the allegations, and investigate whether offsetting is feasible to combat climate change. 

I first discovered the notion of offsetting emissions through my recent study of the IEMA Foundation Certificate in Environmental Management (I documented my learning journey through several learner diaries).

The course described carbon offsetting as an attempt to neutralise one's carbon emissions by investing in environmentally-friendly initiatives. These initiatives would 'offset' the emissions generated by the same company through schemes that include;

  • Combat deforestation
  • Build wind farms
  • Clean cookstoves
  • Increase solar energy
  • Increase Hydropower

Questions around carbon offsetting

On 18 January 2023, The Guardian published a study that concluded an astronomical "90%" of credits belonging to one of the world's largest carbon offset certifiers are "likely to not represent genuine carbon reductions." 

Verra, the company in question, has responded to the claims, expressing disappointment and innocence, stating The Guardian has "incorrectly claimed that Verra-certified REDD+ projects are consistently and substantively over-issuing carbon credits"

In the days since The Guardian investigation, several high-profile Verra partners have made public statements to move away from the story or to commit their environmental pledges. 

What is The Guardian alleging?

The Guardian suggest, in short, that the overwhelming majority of Verra's rainforest offset credits are 'phantom credits'. 

Phantom credits are worthless or empty credits that do nothing positive for the environment. 

The Guardian allege that 90% of Verra's rainforest credits - the most popular among organisations - are phantom credits and possess no meaningful benefit for the environment. 

This has led to organisations who have partnered with Verra questioning the legitimacy of their carbon credits. Shell, one of the largest fossil fuel firms in the world has pledged "$450m on carbon offsetting as fears grow [their] credits may be worthless". 

These revelations have caused huge stirs.

How does Carbon Offsetting work?

In the fight to curb the climate emergency, methods have been established to counter or neutralise the emissions we put into the environment. Companies can invest in environmentally friendly schemes that convert into 'climate credits'. Companies can showcase their efforts by promoting how many climate credits they acquired over time. 

Climate credits have become an attractive status symbol, representing how environmentally proactive and friendly companies are. Organisations have recently begun to take pride in their growing number of credits, believing credits form a positive picture for their brand and the environment's future. 

Trends indicate that consumers are more likely to engage with organisations who have greener profiles, increasing the heightened burden for organisation to enhance their environmental image. 

Carbon offsetting has presented one of the most visible mechanisms for big business to flex their financial muscle and showcase their efforts. In fact, discourse in certain portions of the public has reflected so negatively against the corporate focus on the environment - citing it as merely for public relations - that it has generated the phenomena of 'greenhushing'. 

Greenhusing happens when organisations feel like the can't showcase their pro-environment endeavours because of any negative backlash they may receive that could reflect bad on their company as a whole. 

Who are Verra, and where do they come into this?

Verra is one of the world's leading sustainable development organisations. For years, they have been the industry leaders in offsetting. Companies can pay Verra to engage in environmentally friendly operations, such as mass tree planting, on their behalf. 

The Guardian has claimed 90% of Verra's carbon offsetting initiatives do not actually offset emissions. In some cases, The Guardian alleges, the operations can negatively affect the environment. Verra has vigorously denied these claims, deeming the study methodology incorrect. 

What about other companies that offer offsetting solutions? 

It is not just Verra that has been given an unwanted spotlight in recent weeks and months. The widespread practice of offsetting has been heavily scrutinised by many publications, organisations and personalities.

In short, the effectiveness of carbon offset has been questioned, and since The Guardian's initial expose, more concerns surrounding carbon offsetting keep arising. 

Publications such as National Geographic and the New Scientist have pondered whether carbon offsetting consistently influences our fight against climate change. Those responsible for offsetting downplay the concerns. But constant doubts have sparked.

Why does this matter?

As expressed at COP27, the urgent requirement for action has never been greater. Carbon offsetting has been seen as an incredibly sought-after tool to combat organisation emissions. 

For years, carbon offsetting has offered businesses a pathway to neutralising their emissions. Companies have used the credits they attain as badges of environmental honour, acting as a critical driver for consumers looking to partner with sustainable businesses. 

These allegations throw everything in the air. 

If the findings of The Guardian are accurate, the businesses affected could have invested millions into environmental schemes that had no positive impact on Planet Earth. Organisations could, instead, be showcasing 'phantom credits', badges with no environmental benefit. 

Looking at the bigger picture, if accurate, the projections about how carbon offsetting benefits the environment could be completely invalid. Data, environmentalists hold close to their hearts, could be entirely off-kilter, pointing to higher carbon emissions. 

More finite research into the returns of carbon offsetting are underway. The outcome will paint a more informed picture of the future of carbon offsets and their part in the against climate change. 

The general conclusions that have recently been formed around carbon offsetting have determined that although carbon offsetting is in no way perfect, it is, seemingly, the best we have. If that is indeed so, we must embrace the practice and use it to its best capabilities. The fight against climate change will rage on regardless, so we must act now. 

If you would like to make a difference but are unsure where to start, our wide catalogue of IEMA Environmental courses, are dedicated to positively impact businesses and individuals address sustainability and environmental issues.  

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