- If you give me a chocolate now, I promise I won't ask for another ever again. Pinkie promise!
- But what if you do? Do I get my chocolate back?
What are carbon offsets?
Carbon offsets are the Buy Now / Pay Later of carbon management. It works like this - I continue my high-emissions lifestyle but pay money to an offset project somewhere else. That project reduces or removes carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e) on my behalf. The project might capture methane from landfill, build a solar farm or plant some trees.
Big carbon cuts are easy and we should all be making them. But it's impossible to cut carbon to zero with existing technology. So if you've ever seen an organisation claiming that it is 'carbon neutral', it has probably bought offsets - hopefully after doing all it can to cut carbon first.
Offsets are cheap, convenient and simpler than making lasting changes to cut carbon. What's the catch? It's like giving chocolate to a child for future good conduct. There's no guarantee she'll follow through and you can never get your chocolate back.
Take the well-worn example of planting trees to offset my flight.
The plane releases a buttload of CO2e from fossil fuel. That carbon was previously stored underground for millennia, which meant it had been removed from the carbon cycle. But I've jumped on a plane and put it back out there. I've also had some trees planted, but these don't actually remove anything from carbon cycle. They only borrow carbon, because when they die they release it back. Worse, the trees might take 20 years to borrow back enough carbon to offset my plane ride. And what if the project goes broke? What if the trees get destroyed by bushfires or drought? What if we only have 10 years left to cut carbon and the trees take too long to help?
Meanwhile, I've booked another flight, smug in the knowledge that at least I'm buying offsets.
Tree-planting offsets have come under particular scrutiny. Many experts now prefer energy projects instead, but even these have risk. I recently installed solar panels on my beach house. It generates more power than we use, making it a great DIY offset with proven technology. But one month after it went up, mega-fires ravaged the South Coast. My house and panels are still standing, but summer's not done yet. What if I jumped on a plane to reward my offsets and then the house burned down? It's a double carbon whammy.
Offsets do have a place while we transition to a low-carbon society. We need more trees, more green tech and more care-for-country projects. If done well, they support sustainable industries, local communities and natural habitat. But offsets aren't an excuse for high emissions.
If you know a good project close to home, like a community solar purchase or a tree-planting scheme, you might prefer to support it directly and inspect it yourself.
You can also go DIY and put up panels or plant trees yourself.
Whatever you do, remember to cut carbon first. This is easy to do.
1) Use less carbon in the first place. Buy and waste less food. Buy less stuff. Heat your house to a lower temperature. Fly and drive less.
2) Choose a greener source. Eat more plant-based foods and less meat and dairy. Pick public or active transport or switch to an electric car. Change your gas heating over to electric heating. Change your electricity to renewables.
Once you've cut carbon, consider offsets.
How much do offsets cost?
The moderate steps I recommend in the Carbon Diet cut 77% from the average Australian householder's footprint. This take you from a household footprint of 11.6 tonnes CO2e to 2.7 tonnes CO2e per person per year.
It doesn't cost much to offset the rest. I just bought offsets in a solar farm, wind farm and food waste biomass powerplant in India, which cost $52 to offset 3 tonnes of CO2e.
Why are offsets so cheap? Some steps to cut carbon cost a lot, some cost a little and some save you money. Offset projects typically focus on the cheaper end of the market.
I've cut my personal household footprint from 6.3 tonnes to 2.5 tonnes CO2e per year. I've done this with simple methods that either cost little or saved me money. I'll maintain these changes while I save up for the final two steps, both of which will cost a lot - switching my gas heater to electric and my petrol car to an EV.
I'll also be writing articles, a book and delivering workshops on how to cut carbon as well as updating this blog from time to time. Get in touch with any questions or ideas!
See 'Notes' section, Week Forty-One.