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Carbon offsetting: Can it help solve climate change?

What is carbon offsetting? How can you get involved? And does it really work? Here’s what you need to know.

Time is running out in the fight against climate change and the need for more long-term solutions has never been greater.

Experts say that the use of fossil fuels — coal, oil, and gas — are contributing to rising levels of carbon dioxide, with millions of people in developing countries at risk. 

According to the environmental organisation WWF, switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy is vital if we are to prevent further “dangerous climate change” and reach net-zero emissions.  

Greenpeace UK also said that by replacing fossil fuels with solar and wind power, we can “drastically cut our greenhouse gas emissions”. 

So what is carbon offsetting? How can you get involved? And does it really work? Here’s what you need to know.

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What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is a process that allows individuals and companies to reduce their overall environmental impact by investing in projects that lower emissions elsewhere.

The amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of an individual, organisation or community is called a carbon footprint. All kinds of things contribute to our carbon footprint. It’s not just the type of car we drive but the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the lifestyle choices we make.

In order to tackle climate change, it is vital that we pay attention to our carbon footprint and reduce our overall emissions. 

There are many ways to ‘offset’ your carbon emissions, including investment into renewable energy sources such as wind, solar or hydroelectric power. 

Last year, renewable energy overtook fossil fuels as the primary source of electricity for the first time  in the UK, according to an independent climate think tank Ember. 

Charles Moore, the programme leader at Ember, said: “With Boris’s 40GW 2030 offshore wind target, gas generation is set for further rapid declines over the 2020s. It is clear the UK has started its journey towards gas power phase-out in 2035 as recommended by the Climate Change Committee.”

Individuals and companies can also fund projects that combust or contain methane generated from farm animals. 

According to the National Geographic, methane has a global warming potential 28 times that of CO2 and is, therefore, a heavy factor contributing to climate change. 

The most popular form of carbon offsetting includes investment in reforestation projects

Deforestation accounts for 20 per cent of CO2 emissions. By investing in reforestation projects, people and organisations can lower their environmental impact and prevent local ecosystems from being destroyed.

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Solar panels are gaining widespread use around the world. Image credit: Sungrow EMEA/Unsplash

How much does carbon offsetting cost?

The first thing you need to do to offset how much your lifestyle or business contributes to greenhouse gas emissions  is to figure out your carbon footprint.

Individuals can work out the carbon emissions produced by a specific activity using a Carbon Footprint Calculator. This will also help quantify the cost of offsetting these carbon emissions.

According to Energy Sage, the average price of a carbon offset can range anywhere from £0.07 per tonne to £32.00 per tonne depending on the size of the company and the type of offset project. 

In order to balance the cost of tourism, which makes up 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, individuals can pay an offset company to reduce the emissions elsewhere in the world.

The airline Easyjet offers a carbon offsetting service that allows passengers to pay to plant up to 12 trees per months to compensate for their travel. 

Some companies also include carbon offsetting in the overall price of some products. To maintain their carbon neutral status, Jaguar Land Rover invest money from every purchase in carbon offset projects including clean and safe water projects in Kenya and Uganda and clean cook stove programmes in India and Ghana.

By purchasing carbon credits, a company can emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide in exchange for investment into environmental projects. 

How effective is carbon offsetting?

Despite its growing popularity, carbon offsetting is not always the best solution for  tackling climate change. 

In particular, experts have criticised reforestation projects as a way for companies to justify producing  huge amounts of carbon emissions. 

Alia Al Ghussain, a digital campaigner at Greenpeace wrote: “A newly-planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises. We would have to plant and protect a massive number of trees for decades to offset even a fraction of global emissions.”

Investment in clean energy projects such as wind or solar power can offer a more long-term solution to climate change than reforestation. 

Clean energy projects also have several social benefits, increasing air quality and saving money for poor families previously dependent on fossil fuels for household energy

However, to determine whether carbon offsets are working efficiently, the long-term savings must outweigh the initial environmental costs.

According to the climate organisation Friends of the Earth, offset projects must exist alongside additional climate actions, should permanently lock away emissions and must not lead to emissions moving elsewhere. 

Mike Childs, head of science, policy and research at Friends of the Earth, said: “The reality is that we – government, businesses and individuals – need to cut our emissions by as much as we can, as fast as we can. We also need to invest in projects that will remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere. It’s not either/or, it’s both.”

Carbon offsetting can provide a quick and easy solution to lowering your carbon footprint and overall environmental impact. 

However, it should not be seen as a way to justify a lifestyle of high carbon emissions and irresponsible activities.

Individuals and companies alike must take added measures to reduce their overall environmental impact by investing in long-term projects that actively fight against climate change.