"Essentially, it is claimed, you can be carbon neutral, and still own a car, travel the world, and enjoy a sirloin steak with a clean conscience."
You’ve seen them before. The tick-box at checkout, the slightly more expensive flight on the comparison website, the question asked with slightly less optimism each time by the wearied cashier at your supermarket. Carbon offsets. If we ever do opt for this slightly mysterious bolt-on, it’s probably fairly unlikely that we understand what on God’s green (for the foreseeable future at least) earth we are actually signing up for. These are becoming the t’s and c’s for the environmental age, and we tend to tick and turn off; but what does it mean to purchase a carbon offset, and are we really reducing our footprint, or buying into the faux-concern of the companies that offer us the choice to do so?
Carbon offsets are used as a means to help you develop green initiatives and fund climate positive programs across the world, beyond what would be feasible or affordable on an individual basis. If you aren’t able to completely reduce your emissions to net zero through reduction and personal green alterations to lifestyle, for example, you need to drive a car to work, or you have to travel via plane to a family event, then carbon offsets sweep in to clear up the excess. Essentially, it is claimed, you can be carbon neutral, and still own a car, travel the world, and enjoy a sirloin steak with a clean conscience.
But carbon neutrality isn’t uncontroversial. What it means to be carbon neutral is open to interpretation, and if we look beyond the framing, we find that the science is ambiguous at best, and misleading at worst. If we can initially ignore the fact that offsets were designed to work as loopholes for energy giants that want to exceed emission caps, a fact that is almost damning from the outset, and just focus on the science, we run into a number of inconsistencies, the first being its effectiveness to actually reduce emissions. A report by the EU concluded that in 85% of cases, offsets didn’t reduce emissions one iota. Regulation surrounding this relatively new field is also adjacent to non-existent; the required watchdogs with the expertise and knowledge simply haven’t been created as quickly as the market of offsets and as a result, we are left with a system governed by corporate interests.
But in our age of fossil fuel dependence, maybe whatever we can do, we should? We’ll never get back to an age of local and insular living, nor should we. But within a truly webbed global community, there will be a demand for air travel. Perhaps the science behind emission reduction through reactionary measures is shakey, but there can be no denying that green initiatives offered by offsetting companies have a positive effect. Popular projects offered by offsetting companies include tree planting and reforestation, as well as encouraging green energy development in communities across the world. Perhaps if we try to view offsets not as like for like recompenses for carbon crimes, but a means of separately encouraging environmental awareness and action. The only danger we encounter then is one of complacency, but it seems that as long as we continue to recognize the environmental damage of some of our actions, there is no harm in living with and within our carbon dependent society and continuing to help out wherever we can. Speaking on a corporate level, we may need to watch a little more closely.
This may bring us to the most worrying issue with carbon offsetting, that the framework of direct emission cancellation, built upon scientific matchsticks, seems to be upholding the reputations of corporations that tend to be the most damaging to the climate. It’s not just us as individuals who may be hoping to counterweight our environmental effect, it’s the companies built on the back of fossil fuels who, with little or no will to meaningfully stride toward green initiatives, invest in swathes of carbon offsets to account for their destructive actions. How interested in C02 free cars will Lyft be, seeing as though they have already atoned, using offsets, for the 1 million rides a day in the US alone? How interested will Shell be in moving towards green energy, seeing as though it has already spent $300 million on offsetting its emissions, and can regularly exceed industrial limits? In the mad corporate scramble to be carbon neutral, it seems that they have forgotten to aspire to be carbon positive.
In the long run, it won’t be carbon offsetting that saves us. But using it as a reminder and a tool for positive climate action, knowing our emissions aren’t swept under the rug, could create a purpose out of an unsteady industry. Should we allow it to foster a complacency within us, that our carbon sins are atoned for, we run the risk of offsets becoming a damaging agent to the growing culture of environmental progress. With corporations' acquisition of carbon credits, we may have to draw harder lines. We can see offsets being twisted and morphed into a distraction technique by the politics of greed, a process that, if left unregulated, could leave us all in blissful ignorance about the levels of industrial emissions, because offsets, as with many environmental programs, are not perfect. It’s how we use them and how we understand their various limitations, with lucidity and a critical approach, that may enable them to work for good.
Written by Jack Gooderidge, a freelance researcher and writer covering a variety of topics from art and culture, to politics and social affairs.