Should we offset our business carbon footprint? – Guest blog by Tim Maiden from Green Small Business
More and more businesses are waking up to the role they must play in responding to the challenge of climate change. For many business owners, becoming ‘carbon neutral’ feels like the obvious solution. Measure the carbon footprint of the business, balance it out by planting some trees and the business owner can have a clear conscience. Is it really that simple?
What is carbon offsetting?
When a business buys carbon offsets, they are paying to support one of two types of projects:
- Emissions removals. These are projects which try to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These can be nature-based solutions such as tree planting or technological solutions such as Direct Air Capture. Direct Air Capture plants use chemical processes to extract carbon dioxide from the air and permanently store it.
- Avoided emissions. Projects which prevent emissions which would otherwise have been released. Examples include renewable energy projects (which are assumed to displace fossil fuel energy production). Provision of efficient cooking stoves in developing countries (to reduce the amount of fuel being burnt). Initiatives to protect existing rainforests.
The types of projects supported by carbon offsetting investments are vitally important in our efforts to tackle climate change.
Carbon offsetting is a flawed concept
Whilst the projects supported may be vital, ‘offsetting’ as a concept is flawed.
With even the best offsetting projects, there are uncertainties about the quantity, speed and permanency of the carbon removal which is achieved. Questions are increasingly being raised about such uncertainties following multiple public ‘scandals’. This includes one expose in the Guardian newspaper which claimed that 90% of rainforest carbon offsets in one major scheme were ‘worthless’.
More fundamental is the question of whether carbon offsetting as a concept generates a net benefit to our response to climate change. Yes, it may fund some worthwhile projects but might this be outweighed by the harm that it does? The UK’s Climate Change Committee concluded that in the absence of stronger guidance and regulation, there was a real risk that carbon offsetting could “slow progress towards Net Zero”. The implication is simple. Offsetting is too easy. It disincentivises the radical action needed to achieve carbon reductions. In short, it risks providing an excuse for business-as-usual. Greenpeace put it more bluntly, labelling carbon offsets ‘a scammer’s dream scheme’. When an air-conditioned World Cup in a desert can use carbon offsets to claim that the event is carbon neutral, you see their point.
How should businesses respond?
Carbon footprinting involves significant uncertainty. All business footprints probably represent significant underestimates of the real carbon footprint of the business. Couple that with all of the uncertainty and scandal surrounding offsetting schemes and it should be clear that extreme care is needed here.
Our recommendations to our clients at Green Small Business are simple:
- Measure your business carbon footprint but use it not as a tool to calculate the amount of offsets needed but to help you understand the action you need to take to reduce your emissions.
- Don’t use the term ‘offset’ and don’t make any claims about offsetting your carbon. Definitely don’t use terms like ‘carbon neutral’ or, worse still, ‘climate positive’. To do so places you at risk of accusations of greenwashing.
- Support projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere. This could be in the form of money, time or other in-kind contributions. We love projects like 9Trees. Their vision is to tackle climate change by restoring new woodland habitats, promoting biodiversity, creating jobs within the countryside sector and connecting more people to nature. They won’t sell you verified carbon offsets but they will plant trees on your behalf and in the best way possible. They only plant trees in the UK and they continue to look after your trees, so they store as much carbon as possible. Their specialist knowledge in conservation means they’re able to create woodlands that support local wildlife and improve biodiversity.
For help in developing an authentic approach to climate action as a business, contact Green Small Business.