Carbon Offsetting: An essential action or an ineffective distraction?
Carbon Offsetting is, in essence, paying others to prevent, reduce or remove carbon emissions in order to compensate for one’s own emissions. It is therefore unsurprising that “carbon offsetting” has received such bad press, giving the impression that a business is just avoiding taking responsibility for its own actions.
My impression is that while some may continue to “pay to pollute’’, more businesses are turning to carbon offsetting to complement genuine action to reduce their impacts.
The pitfalls of offsetting
Of course, it is more complex than that. Businesses need to guarantee that the chosen offset is genuine, permanent, accountable, and measurable. It can be difficult to verify that projects are actually offsetting as much carbon as needed. Offsets also have to demonstrate that the emission reduction or carbon removal would not have taken place anyway, and that the investment makes a genuine additional contribution. There are even instances where offsetting programmes cause more harm than good, for instance by decreasing biodiversity through infrastructure impacts or monoculture tree planting, which could result in higher net emissions over time. It certainly pays to check before you buy to ensure your investments deliver.
Can you offset biodiversity impacts?
The market for biodiversity offsets is not as mature as the carbon one, but it is clearly subject to similar complexities and uncertainties, probably to an even greater extent. In ANIMONDIAL’s most recent publication with the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), Nature Positive Travel & Tourism, offsetting was acknowledged as a limited part of a business’ commitment to Nature Positive Tourism. This is because it is considered unreliable by many experts, and in the case of biodiversity does not directly address the impacts on species, habitats and ecosystem services that are being compensated for.
Mitigate, mitigate, mitigate
Instead, we advocate that businesses identify their dependencies and impacts on nature (including their carbon emissions) and then, using the ‘mitigation hierarchy’ (see page 39 of the Nature Positive Travel & Tourism report), to prioritise their responses. This involves first avoiding or reducing both direct impacts and indirect impacts from the value chain, then taking efforts to restore biodiversity after damage has taken place or, if necessary, conduct equivalent restoration at a nearby or ecologically similar location. Only after these steps is offsetting a suitable approach to balancing remaining negative impacts. Offsetting is therefore recommended as a limited action taken as a last resort, and certainly not the only mitigating action.
Is there any place for offsetting?
In the case of carbon emissions, the Net Zero Standard set out by the Science Based Targets Initiative recommends offsetting no more than 10% of emissions, with at least 90% of savings coming from avoiding and reducing emissions. Many leading companies commit to offsetting no more than 5%.
What is the role of biodiversity in carbon offsetting?
Biodiversity loss and nature protection continue to be widely disconnected from most conversations about carbon emission reduction, despite the fact that many of the most cost-efficient, large-scale and long-term emissions reductions or removals are nature-based solutions. In 2021, the world’s leading biodiversity and climate experts acknowledged that biodiversity loss and climate change mutually reinforce each other and can only be tackled together. Businesses, particularly those in Travel &Tourism, should therefore consider how to harness the power of nature (its natural ability to absorb and store carbon) to both offset their emissions and contribute to their biodiversity, as well as sustainable development goals.
Making the most of minimal offsets
Increasingly, carbon offset projects are available that also provide biodiversity and social impact benefits. This can be an efficient way to contribute to multiple Nature Positive goals at once, but it should never be used as a way to side-step more effective mitigation activities. The old saying ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ still applies – it is far better to avoid doing the damage in the first place than to try to make up for it afterwards.
Mitigation Hierarchy Tips for impacts on nature:
- Focus on avoiding impacts by changing activities at a fundamental level – consider what outcomes the activities are intended to produce and think of other ways of achieving these.
- Maximise reduction activities with bold goals for the level of reduction – combine a range of techniques in optimal ways to get the best results.
- Restoration activities should be done on-site, for instance by replanting natural vegetation in areas that have been damaged during construction works.
- For areas that cannot be restored on site, find ways to restore equivalent natural features nearby that provide similar habitats and ecosystem services.
- Only offset as a last resort, using credible, long-term investments – where possible combine this with carbon offsetting if required.
» Learn about Mitigation Hierarchy and the Nature Positive Tourism approach
» Identify your dependencies and impacts on nature
» Learn about 5 carbon reduction actions to achieve Net Zero by ANIMONDIAL, Partner ecollective