Do Carbon Offsetting Programs Actually Work?

carbon offsetting programs
Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / jplenio

If carbon offsetting programs sound too good to be true, that is because they are. While offsetting initiatives have great potential, so far they've most often been used as a quick and often ineffective fix to a larger problem.

Carbon offsetting is a method of reducing or removing CO2 emissions to balance out emissions produced. Essentially, a company or government can offset its own emissions by planting trees or paying others to do so, for example. Carbon offsetting can also be achieved through renewable energy, increased energy efficiency and carbon removal projects. 

Carbon Offset Effectiveness Explained

Renewable energy is a typical method of carbon offsetting.
Renewable energy is a typical method of carbon offsetting.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Pexels)

Carbon offsetting has the potential to be extremely helpful in mitigating the climate crisis. If carbon offsets were effective, they could reduce the impact of greenhouse gasses. Experts say that offsets will likely be necessary in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. However, programs must be designed and administered differently than they currently are in order to meet expectations. 

Unfortunately, carbon offsetting today is not working — the current quick band-aid fixes currently being administered in the name of carbon offsetting simply are not effective. While offsets have done some good, they are nowhere near equal to the carbon emissions they claim to balance out. For example, California’s forest carbon offsets program was found to have likely exaggerated its emissions reductions by at least 80 percent. The European Union Commission says that 85 percent of its projects likely did not reach their reduction goals. Underwhelming results can be attributed to several reasons.

  • Measurement: Part of the problem behind carbon offsets is that emissions are difficult to measure, and even well-designed projects might not pan out as planned. California lost 150,000 acres of its carbon offset forest lands due to wildfires in 2021, for example. It’s almost impossible to accurately balance out emissions when it’s unknown how much the new project will either absorb emissions or supply clean energy. 
  • Not productive: Carbon offsets only work if they fund a carbon reduction that would not have happened otherwise. For example, if a company pays for a forest to be preserved which would never be cut down anyway, this is not productive. In these cases, companies preserve the illusion that they’re doing their part to combat climate change, when in reality, they have not done anything at all.
  • Illogical assumptions: Some offset programs were not well thought out. Greenpeace references oil companies like Shell and BP, for example, which plant trees to offset their emissions. However, it can take 20 years for new trees to capture the amount of carbon that these carbon offset schemes claim. Additionally, when trees die, for whatever reason, the carbon gets released back into the atmosphere, further threatening the planet. Unfortunately, many companies simply do not think these factors through as they simply want a stamp of approval for allegedly reducing their net carbon emissions. 

Irresponsible Carbon Offsets

Investing in solar energy cannot possibly make up for tons of carbon a company emits.
Investing in solar energy cannot possibly make up for tons of carbon a company emits.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / PublicDomainPictures)

In addition to carbon offsets often not being effective, they have the potential to be downright irresponsible. The New York Times notes that carbon offsetting allows society to avoid the real responsibility of climate change. Rather than reducing emissions at the source, carbon offsets allow corporations to avoid the real issue. Instead, they can simply buy their way out of their responsibility to make a change. 

In fact, the illusion of carbon offsetting may even encourage some companies to increase their carbon emissions, as they believe the offsets cancel their actions out. Furthermore, some carbon offset programs put the responsibility of offsetting on the consumer by asking customers to increase their bill to decrease carbon emissions. Again, this helps corporations evade responsibility. Overall,  carbon offsets are not a productive solution to climate change when in reality we should be focusing on decreasing emissions. 

Carbon Offset Program Examples

Many airlines use carbon offset programs.
Many airlines use carbon offset programs.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / johanwiden69)
  1. Airlines such as easyJet claim to offset their carbon emissions. In fact, easyJet claims to offset all of their carbon emissions by planting trees, reducing deforestation and increasing use of renewable energy. However, research has shown that easyJet’s calculations are not transparent, impossible to verify and likely exaggerated.
  2. British Petroleum (BP) is a big oil company which boasts industry leading carbon offsetting programs largely through tree-planting. However, Greenpeace has pointed out that the company’s efforts are insufficient. Experts have called their environmentalist campaign deceptive propaganda. 
  3. Ecosia is an example of a company that uses carbon offsets effectively. Ecosia is an eco-friendly search engine that runs largely on renewable energy and compensates for unavoidable emissions through offsets. The company pays for high-quality carbon credits, produces 200% renewable energy and plants hundreds of millions of trees. 

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