How Sustainable Is Carbon Offsetting? Here’s The Big Picture

How Sustainable Is Carbon Offsetting? Here’s The Big Picture

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Grace Smoot

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Stay impactful,

As we strive to be a sustainable society, the first thought that comes into most peoples’ minds is to protect the environment. One of the ways we can do this is to implement carbon offsets. At least as part of our mitigation strategy. So we had to ask: How sustainable is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is not sustainable because it does not fulfill the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social sustainability. A more sustainable alternative to carbon offsetting is to reduce your carbon footprint directly in your household, travel, and lifestyle.

Keep reading to learn about the sustainability of carbon offsetting and if there are more sustainable alternatives to carbon offsetting.

How Are Carbon Offsetting and Sustainability Defined

Carbon offsets can play a crucial role in reducing our carbon footprint, the amount of carbon (CO2) emissions associated with an individual or an entity. 

Carbon Offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by planting trees”

Oxford Dictionary

Carbon offsets can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas. Reducing your consumption of these, in turn, reduces your carbon footprint, which has huge impacts on environmental, economic, and public health.

For something to be sustainable, it must meet the needs of our current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

The general goal of sustainability is to maintain homeostasis between people and their environment. But in order to be truly sustainable, something must fulfill the three pillars of sustainability: environment, economic, and social. There is a great deal of overlap between the three, and the goal is to combine all three to attain long-term prosperity and preserve our world for the generations yet to come. 

Here’s How Sustainable Carbon Offsetting Is

Carbon offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available. But in order to be sustainable, carbon offsets must fulfill the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social sustainability

Pillars of Sustainability Quick Facts
Environmental sustainability Carbon offsetting is not environmentally sustainable because offsets do not work at the core issue of reducing CO2 emissions, there are not enough offsets for all CO2 emissions, and not all carbon offset projects get realized.
Economic sustainability Carbon offsetting is not economically sustainable because it furthers an economic gap between the world’s rich and poor.
Social sustainability Carbon offsetting is not socially sustainable because it is often used as greenwashing and it maintains an economic gap between the world’s rich and poor.

How Environmentally Sustainable is Carbon Offsetting

Being environmentally sustainable means interacting with the planet in a way that preserves natural resources and maintains global ecosystems for future generations to use. It begins with us paying more attention to global environmental concerns and evaluating our use of natural resources and our collective carbon footprint.

The environmental sustainability pillar encompasses 6 subtopics: 

  1. Ecosystem services
  2. Green engineering 
  3. Green chemistry
  4. Air and water quality
  5. Stressors
  6. Resource integrity

Carbon offsets are not environmentally sustainable because they do not work at the core issue of reducing CO2 emissions, there are not enough offsets for all CO2 emissions, and not all carbon offset projects get realized.

Carbon Offsets Do Not Work at the Core Issue of Reducing CO2 Emissions

Every year we pump upwards of 35 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Opponents of carbon offsets assert that instead of substituting offsetting carbon emissions, we should instead cut the emissions directly at the source. But have we done this? Have we cut emissions directly at the source? The data says no.

Our World in Data: Annual total CO2 emissions

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the largest decrease in energy-related carbon emissions since World War II, a decrease of 2 billion tons. However, emissions rebounded quickly at the end of 2020, with levels in December ending 60 million tons higher than those in December 2019. This indicates that the earth is still warming at an accelerated rate, and not enough is being done to implement clean energy practices. 

In short, carbon offsetting mitigates the problem, but it doesn’t work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions. A more effective way of reducing CO2 emissions is to cut them at the source.

There are Not Enough Carbon Offsets for All CO2 Emissions

The carbon emissions we pump into the atmosphere every year causes climate change, air pollution, acid rain, ocean acidification, and the melting of glaciers and polar ice. Offsetting all CO2 emissions is not only difficult, but it is also impractical because there aren’t enough carbon sinks to offset every ton of CO2 produced from our collective human activities. 

Carbon Sink: an area of forest that is large enough to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere and therefore to reduce the effect of global warming”

Cambridge Dictionary

The main carbon sinks are:

  • Forests: They absorb 2.6 billion tons of CO2 every year. The main threat to this sink is deforestation, which occurs at roughly 10 million hectares (~ 25 million acres) per year. 
  • Soil: They absorb approximately 25% of all carbon emissions, with most of it stored as permafrost. Not only that, but Earth’s soil contains 2,500 gigatons of carbon, more than three and four times the amount stored in our atmosphere and in all living plants/animals, respectively. One of the main threats to this sink is the melting of glacier ice due to global warming, which would instead release massive amounts of carbon into our atmosphere. 
  • Oceans: Phytoplankton in our oceans are responsible for absorbing approximately 25% of all carbon emissions, making them one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. But this absorbing ability has come at a cost. Increased absorption of CO2 causes ocean acidification. Over the past 200 years, our oceans have experienced a 30% increase in acidity, which harms marine life and has a ripple effect on our economy.

Once those sinks fill up, we won’t be able to offset any more carbon. Also, the more carbon we add to these sinks, the faster we degrade them and render them unusable.

Another point of concern is that we may have already exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity or the maximum number of people that the earth can sustain indefinitely. Our population is rapidly approaching 8 billion and increases by approximately 140 million people per year. The ecological footprint, the amount of environmental land needed to produce the goods that support a particular lifestyle, also continues to increase which means we are impacting the environment at levels that cannot be sustained indefinitely.

As the population and our ecological footprint grow, the need for more offsets also grows. And we already do not have enough offsets for all of our emissions. 

Not All Carbon Offset Projects Get Realized

To date, credits for ~1 billion tons of CO2 have been listed for sale on the VCM. But the number of sellers exceeds the buyers by about 600-700 million tons. Meaning that only about 300-400 million tons of CO2 offsets actually get realized. This means that between 600 and 700 million tons of CO2  are emitted but not offset

When credits are listed but not realized, we are not mitigating any effects of climate change. In return, the rates of temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification continue to increase as the earth warms.

When offsets do not get realized they do not offset any carbon. And when this doesn’t happen, we don’t reduce any emissions. 

How Economically Sustainable is Carbon Offsetting

Economic sustainability is tightly linked with environmental sustainability because businesses make economic decisions that have major impacts on the health of the environment.

The economic sustainability pillar encompasses 6 subtopics: 

  1. Jobs
  2. Incentives
  3. Supply and demand
  4. Natural resource accounting
  5. Costs
  6. Prices

The global carbon offset market was estimated at nearly $10 billion in 2010 and has since grown to represent anywhere between $40 billion and $120 billion. But despite its economic growth, the global carbon offset market value has not been distributed equally around the world.

Carbon Offsetting Maintains a Social Gap Between the World’s “Rich” and “Poor”

Carbon offsetting is not economically sustainable because “poorer” countries are paid to offset carbon while the “rich” countries continue to emit. This maintains an economic gap between the world’s rich and poor.

The richest 1% of the world’s population emitted more than twice as much CO2 as the poorer half of the world between 1990-2015. And the richest 10% of the world’s population, approximately 630 million people, were responsible for approximately 52% of all carbon emissions during that time. 

Overall emissions rose 60% from 1990-2015, but the rate of emissions from the richest 1% was nearly three times greater than the rate of emissions from the poorer half. Instead of using carbon offsets to reduce emissions in rich countries where overconsumption is commonplace, we have only worsened the climate crisis and allowed the rich to continue to overconsume carbon.  In a sense, carbon offsetting provides richer countries with a license to pollute

How Socially Sustainable is Carbon Offsetting

Social sustainability is often left out of the sustainability discussion; however, sustainable societies begin and end with the people that reside in a given community. 

The social sustainability pillar encompasses 6 subtopics: 

  1. Environmental justice
  2. Human health
  3. Participation
  4. Education
  5. Resource security
  6. Sustainable communities

Carbon offsets can be economically sustainable if they promote long-term economic growth without negatively impacting our environment or society. But this is not the case with carbon offsets.

Carbon Offsetting is Often Used as Greenwashing

Companies accused of greenwashing either invest in non-verified credits, do not prioritize in-house emissions reductions, or double-count carbon credits. Or sometimes, all of the above. All of these activities deceive the consumer into thinking they are offsetting their emissions, when in reality they are not.

Greenwashing: behavior or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is

Cambridge Dictionary

There are three levels of greenwashing

  • Reduction of carbon emissions first, offsetting all (or even more) remaining carbon emissions: zero greenwashing because the company or organization is not overstating its environmental contributions
  • Partial or no reduction of carbon emissions, offsetting all or some carbon emissions: moderate greenwashing because there is some deception involving carbon emission reduction and the amount of carbon offset credits
  • No reduction of carbon emissions, offsetting some or zero carbon emissions: severe greenwashing because these offset programs deceive the consumer into thinking they are offsetting their emissions when in reality they are not

For example, the Nature Conservancy owns or has helped develop more than 20 projects on forested land in the United States that generate credits so big corporations (e.g., Walt Disney, JPMorgan) can claim their own carbon emission reductions. The problem is that the trees that the Nature Conservancy protects are not in danger of destruction. Carbon projects that take credit for activities already occurring are meaningless and undermine the market’s credibility. Simply put, there was no additionality. This would be an example of severe greenwashing. 

The easiest way to avoid carbon offset greenwashing is to not rely on offsets in the first place. If you are still using carbon offsets, making sure that the project is both additional AND permanent is crucial. Also, choosing carbon offset projects that meet key criteria and verified project standards are more likely to actually reduce CO2 emissions.

Carbon Offsetting Maintains a Social Gap Between the World’s “Rich” and “Poor”

Likewise, carbon offsetting is not socially sustainable because “poorer” countries are paid to offset carbon while the “rich” countries continue to emit.

The richest 1% of the world’s population emitted more than twice as much CO2 as the poorer half of the world between 1990-2015. And the richest 10% of the world’s population, approximately 630 million people, were responsible for approximately 52% of all carbon emissions during that time. 

There are many carbon offset programs that can improve the quality of life of those in poorer countries, but since most of the available land for carbon offset programs is located in poor countries, powerful countries sometimes exploit this land, leaving native peoples to face food scarcity and eviction. While the poor countries face these injustices, the richer countries are given a seemingly “free” pass to continue to emit carbon. In a sense, carbon offsetting provides richer countries with a license to pollute

Carbon offsetting is not socially sustainable because offset projects are often used as greenwashing, and “poorer” countries are paid to offset carbon while the “rich” countries continue to emit.

What Are More Sustainable Alternatives to Carbon Offsetting

Reducing your individual carbon emissions before relying on carbon offsets is a more sustainable approach to combatting climate change. And you don’t have to make drastic changes in your lifestyle to do this. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household footprint:

Reduce your travel footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle footprint:

  • Switch to renewable energy sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels (e.g., coal and oil) that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global GHGs and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means less GHG emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Final Thoughts

Carbon offsetting is not environmentally, economically, or socially sustainable. Offsets do not work at the core of reducing carbon emissions, they maintain an economic gap between the world’s rich and poor, and they are often used as greenwashing.

Carbon offsets should not be used as a panacea for climate change, instead, they should be viewed as one of the many tools available to combat this crisis. Only using carbon offsets and not cutting emissions from the source will not be enough to significantly reduce emissions. Reducing your household, travel, and lifestyle carbon footprints are a more sustainable alternative to carbon offsets.

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 of Science 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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