I recently asked a colleague to look into this, as we’re looking to offset all our client business travel. What I learnt was that planting a tree isn’t a good way to offset carbon emissions but that offsetting emissions isn’t a huge cost! This is a summary of what I’ve been told…
What is carbon offsetting?
Funding a project designed to reduce carbon emissions by the same amount of CO2 you emit elsewhere, such as renewable energy or forestry. This is supposed to “neutralise” the effect of your emissions.
The projects on the Gold Standard website (below) seem to range from $10-$18 (approx. £8-£14) per ton.
If we had more information, e.g. annual mileage for each mode of transport we could look into using this free calculator they have on the same website for small businesses: https://www.carbonfootprint.com/small_business_calculator.html
Give to “Gold Standard-approved projects” - https://www.goldstandard.org/get-involved/make-an-impact
Energy efficiency projects are promising candidates for ethical offsets, as many of them would be a good thing irrespective of the climate. For example, one of the main types is improving the efficiency of cooking stoves in poorer countries, where indoor air pollution from open fires and smoky stoves is responsible for about [four million deaths per year. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs292/en
Things to avoid
Official offsetting gives you a “cheap and easy quantifiable win” but some cuts are sustainable and some are not. A calculation of the cost of offsetting with Certified Emissions Reductions calculated that on average, only about 30% of the money makes it to actual projects, with the rest being taken by verification costs, overheads, and project developers’ profits.
Tree planting - To many people, carbon offsetting means planting trees; however, tree planting is actually now relatively uncommon. The key criticism is to do with permanence. CO2 has a long lifetime in the atmosphere, so when you release carbon dioxide from fossil fuels it is going to stay there permanently but trees are generally just temporary stores of carbon - they absorb CO2 slowly until they reach their maximum size, and then they sit there. But if you want them to continue to hold your carbon for you, you must then ensure that they remain there – maybe for centuries. At a time of growing pressure on land resources, that is a big ask. There have also been a number of major tree-planting offset scandals in which local people were evicted from the land to make way for the trees, or the trees were allowed to die almost immediately after planting, or inappropriate species were used that damaged native forests.
REDD projects (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) - these offsets are also controversial, as the causes of deforestation are often complex social issues and it is hard to be sure that they are helping rather than hurting.
For more info, see: https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/energy/short-guide-carbon-offsets