It is widely accepted that, as a result of increased CO2 production, the world is warming - causing highly unusual, unstable, and destructive weather patterns. The world has (mostly) mobilised to find sustainable solutions to the crisis. Amongst the many ideas - some good, others bad - carbon offsetting was born. The concept has since become controversial amongst environmentalists and, as in many public disputes, it has not been the best arguments that are heard but the loudest. This, unfortunately, has muddled the waters, and many well-meaning people looking to do their bit for the environment have been left scratching their green heads. Luckily, in our rough guide to carbon offsetting we will be covering exactly what it is, why it is controversial, and whether you should continue, or start, to do it.
Carbon offsetting is the practice of compensating for the CO2 pollution you are creating (also known as your ‘carbon footprint’) by taking steps to prevent the same amount of pollution from being created elsewhere. Generally, people or organisations offset their carbon footprint, or become ‘carbon neutral’, through specific offsetting schemes. For example, when taking a flight, a person will use an online tool to calculate the emissions of the trip. They will then contribute to an offsetting organisation who will in turn spend the money on an offsetting program such as renewable energy production. While the price varies across organisations, a tonne of CO2 costs about R175, or $12, to offset. More and more we are seeing products that are now available with carbon neutrality included as part of the price. These range from books about environmental topics to high-emission cars. It is also worth noting that it is possible to offset your own carbon, without paying someone else to do it.
The definition of carbon offsetting may leave some wondering how it could be controversial. At first glance, it seems like an effective way for people to counteract the damage they are doing to the environment. There have, however, been legitimate concerns raised against proponents of carbon offsetting.
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Traditionally, much of the criticism of carbon offsetting related to the planting of trees. While these concerns were valid, most carbon offsetting programs have switched to clean-energy projects that, more often than not, offer some form of social benefit. For example, the distribution of efficient cooking stoves or installation of solar power in developing communities who would not otherwise have had access to these resources. It seems like a win-win situation: fighting climate change and contributing to social initiatives. Arguments against carbon offsetting, however, continue to be put forward.
The main criticism levelled against carbon offsetting is that it does not deal with the real problem: the damage caused in the first place. George Monbiot compared carbon offsets with the ancient Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences: reduced time in purgatory and pardon from sins in exchange for financial donations to the church. Monbiot argues that carbon offsetting lets perpetrators off the hook without learning their lesson, or changing their behaviours. He continues, “[o]ur guilty conscience appeased, we continue to fill up our SUVS and fly round the world without the least concern about our impact on the planet… it’s like pushing the food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten it.”
Monbiot’s way with words, however, does not prove him right. According to the data published by numerous carbon offset schemes, the claim that people use offsetting as a way to avoid changing their wicked ways is unfounded. In reality, according to the schemes, most of their contributors are taking additional steps to reduce their carbon footprint directly. Counter to Monbiot and others, the most logical conclusion would be that offsetting not only reduces carbon production elsewhere, but raises awareness of participants and nudges changes in behaviour towards less carbon production.
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It is clear that carbon offsetting contributes positively towards the fight against a changing climate. Monbiot and other critics raise valid concerns in so far as carbon offsetting does not deal directly with the CO2 a person creates; the reduction of which should be a primary focus of everyone. These critics, however, do not deal with the reality that, since the industrial revolution, the world is driven by the production of CO2, and it is impossible to change this overnight. People will continue to drive cars, take flights, and buy products created in CO2 producing factories. The way forward, then, should be a multipronged approach: We should always look at ways to reduce the amount of carbon we create personally. In situations where carbon production is inevitable, offsetting should be used to compensate for the carbon we create, to do social good, and to spread awareness around the climate crisis.
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