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Three Reasons Why Offsetting Carbon Emissions is Not the Miracle We Need

As Yasmin Vince tells us, environmental issues cannot be solved by the wave of a debit card

Let’s get something clear: carbon offsetting is not a solution to the climate crisis. It’s the ecological equivalent of noticing a gaping wound on your leg and wiping away the blood as it trickles. All the wiping in the world won’t change the fact that you are still bleeding. Furthermore, if you start actively pushing out blood, confident your wiping tactic will prevent your socks from getting soaked, you’ll make things worse. Inevitably, your cute strawberry embroidered socks will be ruined and unfit for use.

Metaphors aside, let’s unpick the reasons carbon offsetting isn’t the planet-saving miracle some may think it is. Reason number 1: offsetting carbon emissions is not carbon negative. To make any difference in the coming climate disaster, we need to have net zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. To reach the goal laid out by the Paris agreement, we need to be net zero by 2050 and at least reduce our emissions by 45% by 2030. The level of carbon in our atmosphere means carbon neutrality – the only change to carbon emissions that can be achieved by offsetting – is not enough. We need to emit less than can be absorbed. Simply planting a tree or donating to a carbon-negative practice while also pumping CO2 into the atmosphere is not going to change anything.

Reason number 2 – it’s too slow. Most carbon offsetting schemes involve planting trees. Trees and other photo-synthesisers are the most effective absorbers of CO2. But for this, they need to grow and that takes time – time we don’t have. The most effective carbon-absorbing tree is an oak. If one is planted to absorb the carbon emitted by a trans-Atlantic flight, the carbon is emitted immediately. The damage begins to take place. But the oak, planted at the same time, has five or six years to go before it is self-sustaining and another several decades before it can absorb carbon to its full capacity. Several decades must pass before it can help, by which time, we will have surpassed the point where that help can change anything.

Reason number 3 – it puts the onus on the individual. Big corporations pump more CO2 into the atmosphere than any one person. As such, they are both more responsible and more capable of effecting real change in the climate crisis. But if you were to believe what most of these corporations tell you, it’s your fault the planet is dying. Just 100 companies were responsible for 71% of emissions in 2017, yet the planet is supposedly dying because you, one of the 7.9 billion people on Earth, didn’t recycle your tin of beans. Fuel companies could stop producing petrol and invest in biofuel, but you drove across the motorway instead of biking it. With energy prices surging, the government could commit to green energy and stop subsidising the coal industry, but climate change is your fault because you still turned your heating on.

To return to the blood metaphor, if you have a gaping wound on your leg that won’t stop bleeding, it won’t heal on its own. It needs stitching, which needs a nurse, who needs to be trained, which requires education, which requires funding and so on. It takes a village to raise a child, a country to patch up a leg and the entire global community to save the planet. This is something carbon offsetting cannot achieve. Sorry to burst your bubble.

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