Carbon Avoidance Explained: All You Need to Know

Carbon Avoidance Explained: All You Need to Know

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Grace Smoot

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Stay impactful,

In order to maintain a sustainable planet for future generations, experts assert that we must reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. To meet this target, reducing carbon emissions is crucial. And carbon avoidance is one pathway we can take. So, we had to ask: What is carbon avoidance really, and could it help us mitigate climate change?

Carbon avoidance is the prevention of emitting carbon in the first place either via particular carbon offsets or via direct carbon reduction measures. It mitigates climate change, improves air quality, and protects ecosystems but may not work at the core issue of reducing overall carbon emissions.

Keep reading to find out all about what carbon avoidance is, the impact you can have with it both individually and globally, its benefits and drawbacks, and why it may not be the most effective way to mitigate climate change.

The Big Picture of Carbon Avoidance

Carbon avoidance involves measures aimed at preventing carbon from being released into the atmosphere.

Avoidance: not doing something; preventing something from existing or happening”

Oxford Dictionary

 Carbon avoidance can occur either via carbon offsets or via direct carbon reduction measures.

  • Carbon offsets are measured in tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms. 
  • Direct carbon reduction measures involve those that lower your carbon footprint. And a lower carbon footprint means less carbon is emitted into the atmosphere. 

The carbon offsets that are classified as carbon avoidance measures include renewable energy and energy efficiency offsets. The former generates energy from renewable resources (i.e. solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass) rather than from fossil fuels. The latter develops products or systems that use less energy than conventional systems to perform the same task (i.e., LED light bulbs and efficient cooking stoves). 

Direct carbon reduction measures include those that reduce your carbon footprint. You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle

Related: Are you interested in learning why reducing your carbon footprint is so important? Check it out in this article here: “4 Main Reasons Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is Important

These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up!

What carbon avoidance isCarbon avoidance involves measures aimed at preventing carbon from being released into the atmosphere.
How carbon avoidance worksCarbon avoidance via carbon offsets and direct carbon reduction measures prevents carbon from entering the atmosphere. 
The impact of carbon avoidance on your own emissionsCarbon avoidance via carbon offsets does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does directly reduce your carbon footprint.
The impact of carbon avoidance on global emissionsCarbon avoidance via offsets does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions. Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.
The overall effectiveness of carbon avoidance on reducing carbon emissionsThe effectiveness of carbon avoidance via carbon offsets depends on the type of project and if the project is realized, additional, permanent, meets certain key criteria and project standards, and does not engage in greenwashing. Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures is effective because it cuts emissions at their source.
The main benefits of carbon avoidanceCarbon avoidance aids in climate change mitigation, improves air quality, and protects ecosystems.
The main drawbacks of carbon avoidanceCarbon offset limitations and global reliance on fossil fuels are drawbacks to carbon avoidance measures.

How Does Carbon Avoidance Work

Carbon avoidance refers to the prevention of releasing carbon into the atmosphere. It is one way to mitigate the adverse effects of carbon emissions that occur after they enter our atmosphere.

How Does Carbon Avoidance Reduce Carbon Emissions

The goal of carbon avoidance is to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. 

  • Carbon avoidance via offsets represents indirect emission reductions. 
  • Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures represents direct emission reductions.

When you hear the words “carbon avoidance” think of the word “prevention”.

For carbon avoidance via carbon offsets, the offsets represent the reduction, avoidance, destruction or sequestration of the equivalent of a ton of carbon in one place to “offset” an emission taking place somewhere else. Purchasing carbon offsets funds carbon emission reduction projects which prevent CO2 from entering the atmosphere.

For carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures, you prevent carbon from being emitted by switching to practices that emit less or even zero carbon. For example, biking to work or sourcing your energy from renewables.

What Impact Does Carbon Avoidance Have on Your Own Carbon Emissions

One of the best ways we can aid in the fight against global climate change is to reduce our carbon footprint. And to do this we first have to reduce our carbon emissions. 

  • Carbon avoidance via offsets does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 
  • Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does directly reduce your carbon footprint.

Carbon avoidance via carbon offsets does not directly reduce your own carbon emissions. Offsets only make others reduce their carbon emissions to compensate for your emissions.

Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does directly reduce your own carbon emissions. Choosing to directly reduce your carbon output reduces your carbon footprint. And this means less carbon is emitted into the atmosphere.

What Impact Does Carbon Avoidance Have on Global Carbon Emissions

Every year we pump over 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, fueling climate change. This causes temperature and sea-level rise, melting of sea ice, changing precipitation patterns, and ocean acidification. Carbon avoidance aims to reduce global carbon emissions and mitigate these negative environmental effects.

  • Carbon avoidance via offsets does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions. 
  • Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.

Carbon avoidance via carbon offsets does not have a significant impact on global carbon emissions. This is because, in comparison to our 36 billion tons of CO2 emissions, carbon offsets for only ~1 billion tons of CO2 have been listed for sale on the voluntary market. Meaning that only about 0.8-1% of our annual CO2 emissions are offset.

Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures can have a significant impact on global carbon emissions. For example, if we stopped burning fossil fuels today we would be preventing the emission of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. But even on a smaller scale, using cold water when washing clothes and switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs can decrease carbon emissions.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the largest decrease in energy-related carbon emissions since World War II, a decrease of 2 billion tonnes. However, emissions rebounded quickly and rose by 6% in 2021 to 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest ever level. This indicates that the earth is still warming at an accelerated rate, and still not enough is being done to implement direct carbon reduction measures.

Illustration of annual CO2 emissions globally
Our World in Data: Annual total CO2 emissions

How Effective Is Carbon Avoidance in Reducing Carbon Emissions

Carbon avoidance can be effective at reducing carbon emissions under certain conditions.

  • Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures is effective because it cuts emissions at their source.

The overall effectiveness of carbon avoidance via carbon offsets depends on various factors

  • Renewable energy offsets are generally more effective than energy efficiency offsets. 
  • Carbon offsets must be realized to be effective. When offsets do not get realized they do not offset any carbon, and we don’t reduce any emissions. 
  • The number of sellers on the voluntary carbon market exceeds the buyers by about 600-700 million tons. Meaning that only about 300-400 million tons of CO2 offsets actually get realized. 
Related: Are you interested in learning how effective carbon offsets are, really? Check it out in this article here: “How Effective Is Carbon Offsetting Really? Here Are the Facts

Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures is effective because it cuts emissions at their source. And cutting emissions at the source is the fastest way to decrease global emissions, thereby mitigating the effects of global warming.

What Are the Main Benefits and Drawbacks of Carbon Avoidance

As with anything, carbon avoidance comes with benefits and drawbacks that must be understood before implementing it on a large scale. 

What Are the Main Benefits of Carbon Avoidance 

Carbon avoidance via offsets and direct carbon reduction measures comes with environmental benefits in addition to limiting global carbon emissions resulting from fossil fuels (i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas). 

  • Aids in climate change mitigation: Carbon avoidance aims to prevent carbon emissions from entering our atmosphere. Levels of carbon in our atmosphere that cause climate change have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. The global average concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million. Carbon avoidance can help prevent these levels from increasing even more.
Illustration of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over 800,000 years
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Carbon Dioxide Over 800,000 Years
  • Improves Air Quality: Degradation of air quality as a result of carbon emissions is a serious issue. In 2009, the US government declared CO2, CH4, N2O, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) threats to the public health and welfare of current and future generations. Preventing carbon from entering the atmosphere would lead to improved public health in terms of asthma, respiratory allergies, airway diseases, and lung cancer

Carbon avoidance can mitigate the effects of climate change, which has a positive cascade effect on public health and plant and animal diversity. In addition, it boosts the global economy and leads to innovative, more environmentally-friendly solutions in years to come.

What Are the Main Drawbacks of Carbon Avoidance 

Carbon avoidance via offsets comes with drawbacks associated with the methodology of carbon offsetting. Various limitations of offsetting make the current offset market fragmented and complex, which can lead to confusion, inconsistencies, and general distrust of the system.

The following 9 major limitations should be taken into account when implementing carbon offset programs:

  1. When you purchase a carbon offset, you are paying someone else to cut their emissions so you don’t have to cut your own emissions.
  1. Global warming is still occurring at an accelerated rate because offsetting CO2 emissions does not cut CO2 emissions at the source, it only mitigates emissions.
  1. If carbon offset projects are not additional and permanent, they can make climate change worse because they are not offsetting any carbon.
  1. The richest of the world emit the majority of the world’s carbon. Offsets are just licenses to pollute with the benefit of aiding those in developing countries.
  1. The varying levels of effectiveness of carbon offset programs make it difficult to choose one that actually reduces emissions. Direct CO2 removal is the most effective category of offsets followed by renewable energy, energy efficiency, and carbon sequestration.
  1. If a carbon offset program is not carried out until the end, then we cannot reap the program’s benefits. For example, planting trees is a common offset program that is only effective if those planted trees are protected during their life span for the carbon benefits to be realized. 
  1. We emit far more CO2 than we can offset because of carbon sink (e.g., atmosphere, forests, soil, ocean) limitations.
  1. Of the credits for 1 billion tons of CO2 listed on registries, only about 300-400 million tons of CO2 offsets actually get realized. 
  1. Investing in non-verified credits, not prioritizing in-house emissions reductions, and double-counting carbon credits are methods of greenwashing. Also, companies may advertise a specific program, but it may be just for public attention instead of to actually reduce emissions.
Related: Are you interested in learning more about the biggest carbon offsetting limitations? Check it out in this article here: “What Are the Biggest Carbon Offsetting Limitations? (All 9 Explained)

Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures comes with less drawbacks than via offsets because it is a direct way of reducing emissions. However, reducing your carbon footprint can still be difficult. Fossil fuels currently supply around 80% or more of the world’s energy. Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy can present high upfront costs as the technology is still being developed. 

Why Is Carbon Avoidance Important to Fight Climate Change

As outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Carbon avoidance is important to meet these targets because it prevents carbon from entering the atmosphere, carbon that if emitted can remain in our atmosphere for tens of thousands of years.

However, carbon avoidance should not be viewed or used as a panacea for climate change. Relying on it solely is impractical because it does not remove carbon that we have already emitted. Removing the carbon that has already entered our atmosphere, coupled with measures that reduce further emissions, more directly addresses the pervasive issue of climate change.

What are Better Alternatives to Carbon Avoidance 

The main argument against carbon avoidance via carbon offsets is that carbon offsets don’t really work. Instead of substituting offsetting carbon emissions, we should instead cut the emissions directly at the source. Basically, if we stop emissions from getting into the atmosphere in the first place, we won’t have to worry about offsetting.

This is where the other side of carbon avoidance comes into play, carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures. These are measures that cut emissions at the source. And when combined with carbon offsets, they can have a substantial impact in the fight against climate change.

Final Thoughts

Carbon avoidance can be broken down into two categories, carbon avoidance via carbon offsets and carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures. The former does not work at the core issue of reducing global carbon emissions because it is a reactive method. The latter cuts emissions at their source and is a proactive method. Both methods can aid in climate change mitigation, improve air quality, and protect ecosystems when implemented properly.

Overall, carbon avoidance is difficult to quantify because it involves not putting carbon into the atmosphere. But it is also easier to put into practice because it is easier not to do things than it is to do them.

Stay impactful,

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Grace Smoot

Grace loves to research and write about all things related to climate action and sustainability. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Biology and works as an Environmental Survey Technician. Outside of work, she loves to work out, play soccer, and take her dog for long walks.

Did you know that the internet is a huge polluter of the environment? But fortunately not this site. This site is powered by renewable energy and all hosting-related CO2 emissions are offset by three times as many renewable energy certificates. Find out all about it here.

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