Why Is Carbon Offsetting Controversial? Here Are the Facts

Why Is Carbon Offsetting Controversial? Here Are the Facts

Grace Smoot

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Carbon offsets are just one of the ways in which we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations. But despite their benefits, carbon offsets are not without controversy. So we had to ask: Why is carbon offsetting controversial?

Carbon offsetting is controversial because carbon offsets do not reduce the root cause of CO2 emissions, and they only remove a tiny fraction of global CO2 emissions. If – and only if – they are additional and permanent, offsets provide environmental benefits that go beyond reducing CO2 emissions. 

Keep reading to find out why carbon offsetting is controversial, what its benefits are, and how you can best use them yourself.

Here’s Why Carbon Offsetting Is Controversial

Carbon offsets can play an important role in mitigating the effects of global climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beyond what we each can achieve through individual actions. They are measured in tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms

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

Although they can provide environmental benefits, carbon offsets are still a controversial topic. Some believe they improve environmental health, while others assert that they don’t really work since they are not reducing the root cause of carbon emissions. 

In fact, there are 9 main carbon offsetting limitations that can make the current voluntary carbon market (VCM) controversial and lead to confusion, inconsistencies, and a general distrust of the system. Below we have highlighted 8 of these limitations. You can check out the full article here: “What Are the Biggest Carbon Offsetting Limitations? (All 9 Explained)

Controversial Parts of Carbon OffsettingQuick Facts
Carbon offsets do not reduce your own emissionsWhen you purchase a carbon offset, you are paying someone else to cut their emissions so you don’t have to cut your own emissions.
Carbon offsets reduce incentives to work at the core issue of reducing CO2 emissionsGlobal warming is still occurring at an accelerated rate because offsetting CO2 emissions does not cut CO2 emissions at the source, it only mitigates emissions.
Carbon offsets are often used as greenwashingCompanies may advertise a specific program, but it may be just for public attention instead of to actually reduce emissions. Investing in non-verified credits, not prioritizing in-house emissions reductions, and double-counting carbon credits are methods of greenwashing.
“Poorer” countries are paid to offset carbon while the “rich” countries continue to emitThe 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.
Carbon offsetting only works if the projects are additional and permanentIf carbon offset projects are not additional and permanent, they can make climate change worse because they are not offsetting any carbon.
Carbon offsets are only realized at the end of project durationsIf 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. 
Not all carbon offset projects get realizedOf the credits for 1 billion tons of CO2 listed on registries, only about 300-400 million tons of CO2 offsets actually get realized. 
There are not enough offsets for all CO2 emissionsWe emit far more CO2 than we can offset because of carbon sink (e.g., atmosphere, forests, soil, ocean) limitations.

Here’s Why Carbon Offsets Do Not Reduce Your Own Emissions

It is important to note that you don’t offset your own carbon emissions when you purchase a carbon offset. Offsets work by reducing emissions in other places. You are effectively reducing the carbon emissions of something else, but then you attribute it to yourself because you paid to offset it.

Because offsetting is an indirect way and not a direct way of reducing emissions, it alone will not be enough to significantly reduce global carbon emissions. Coupled with direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy usage and consumption, carbon offsetting can be more effective.

Here’s Why Carbon Offsets Reduce Your Incentives to Reduce Your Own CO2 Emissions

Not knowing how carbon offsetting works can deceive us into thinking we are reducing our own carbons emissions when in reality, we are not. This in turn can reduce your incentive to reduce your own CO2 emissions. Offsetting only makes others reduce their carbon emissions to compensate for your carbon emissions. 

Carbon offsetting mitigates the problem, but it doesn’t work at the core issue of reducing overall 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. 

Our World in Data: Annual total CO2 emissions

A more effective way of reducing CO2 emissions is to cut them at the source. Ways to directly decrease your carbon emissions without using offsets include: washing with cold water, replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent bulbs, flying less, walking or biking when possible, switching to renewable energy sources, recycling, taking shorter showers, and eating less meat and dairy.

Here’s How Carbon Offsets Are Often Used as Greenwashing

Voluntary carbon market (VCM) offsets are often unregulated and come from a wide range of sources. Companies may advertise a specific program, but it may be just for public attention instead of to actually reduce emissions.

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. 

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.

Here’s How “Poorer” Countries Are Often Used to Offset “Richer” Countries’ CO2 Emissions

Carbon offsetting maintains a social and economic gap between the world’s rich and poor, allowing the rich to continue emitting carbon.

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, offsetting provides richer countries with a license to pollute

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 over consume carbon.

Here’s Why Carbon Offsets Only Work if the Projects Are Additional and Permanent

To be beneficial, carbon offsets must be additional. This means the reductions would not have occurred without an offset market. If offset programs are not additional, then offsetting rather than directly reducing your emissions can actually worsen the effects of climate change.

Carbon offset projects also must also be permanent, in the sense that there must be a full guarantee against reversals of carbon emission into the indefinite future. Most projects are permanent by nature, but a classic example is sequestering carbon in trees. Once a tree is planted, it should never be removed to guarantee permanence. Cutting down the tree later to harvest wood, or if a forest fire burns the trees down, negates permanence.

If carbon offset projects are not additional and permanent, they can actually make climate change worse rather than reducing emissions.

Here’s Why Carbon Offsets Are Only Realized at the End of Project Durations

If a carbon offset program is not carried out until the end, then we cannot reap the program’s benefits.

One of the most popular carbon offset projects involves planting trees. It is a simple action to take and one of the most well-known ways to protect our environment. However, this is not an effective way to reduce emissions in the long term.

To offset even a fraction of our global CO2 emissions, we would have to plant AND protect a massive number of trees for decades. A newly planted tree could take upwards of 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon offset program promises. Furthermore, there is always the risk of droughts, wildfires, tree diseases, and deforestation wiping out newly planted trees. 

If we can manage to plant and protect the trees until maturity and beyond, then and only then can the carbon sequestration benefits be realized. In reality, this is often not the case. 

Here’s Why There Are Not Enough Carbon Offset Projects to Offset All CO2 Emissions

We emit far more CO2 than we are able to offset because of carbon sink limitations.

Globally, we pump over 36 billion tons of CO2  into the atmosphere every year which 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. Once our 4 main carbon sinks (atmosphere, forests, soils, and oceans) 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.

And the current offering of carbon offsets on the voluntary carbon market does not compare to our collective CO2 emissions. 

In comparison to our 35 billion tons of CO2 emissions, carbon offset credits for only ~1 billion tons of CO2 have been listed for sale on the voluntary market. And even then, 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. And only about 0.8 – 1 % of the annual CO2 emissions are offset and only about 1.6 – 1.75% could be offset if all of these projects got realized.

What Are the Benefits of Carbon Offsetting

If – and only if – they are additional and permanent, then carbon offsets can help reduce carbon emissions to fight climate change – at least in the short term. But their benefits even go beyond that.

Benefits of Carbon OffsettingQuick facts
Mitigates the effects of global climate changeReducing carbon emissions slows the rate of temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification.
Improves air qualityReducing carbon emissions leads to decreases in asthma, respiratory allergies, airway diseases, and lung cancer.
Protects the biosphereReducing carbon emissions reduces the adaptation pressure placed on plants and animals and helps maintain healthy ecosystems.

If used correctly, carbon offsets can reduce carbon emissions and create a ripple effect that provides environmental, economic, and social benefits.

Here’s How Carbon Offsetting Mitigates the Effects of Global Climate Change

Carbon emissions have devastating effects on the environment. Reducing your carbon emissions through the use of carbon offsets can mitigate these effects because the less carbon we emit, the less we contribute to global climate change.

Carbon emissions cause the following negative environmental effects:

  • Melting of sea ice: Since 1979 arctic sea ice has declined by 30%. Sea ice plays a major role in regulating the earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight into space and providing habitat for animal species. If all of the glaciers on Earth melted, sea levels would rise by approximately 70 feet, effectively flooding out every coastal city on the planet. 
  • Changing precipitation patterns: Extreme weather events (e.g., hurricanes, floods, droughts) are becoming more common and more intense. Storm-affected areas will experience increased precipitation and flooding whereas areas located further from storm tracks will experience decreased precipitation and droughts.
  • Ocean Acidification: The ocean absorbs 30% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere, which decreases the pH (increases the acidity) of the ocean. In the past 200 years, the pH of oceans has decreased by 0.1 pH units, which translates to a 30% increase in acidity. Aquatic life unable to adjust to this rapid acidification will die off. A prime example of this is coral bleaching, where coral expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues as a result of changes in temperature, light, or nutrients. 

Experts claim that to avoid a future plagued by rising sea levels, acidified oceans, loss of biodiversity, more frequent and severe weather events, and other environmental disasters brought on by the hotter temperatures, we must limit global warming to 1.5C by 2040

The more we reduce the amount of GHG emissions, the more we slow the rate of temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation. 

Here’s How Carbon Offsetting Improves Air Quality

Degradation of air quality as a result of carbon emissions is a serious issue. We pump over 36 billion tons of CO2  into the atmosphere every year. 

Illustration of global annual CO2 emissions
Our World in Data: Annual CO2 Emissions

In 2009, the U.S. government declared CO2, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) threats to the public health and welfare of current and future generations. 

CO2 emissions can cause an increased concentration of pollen, mold spores, dust, and particulate matter which amplifies allergies and respiratory conditions such as chest pain, throat irritation, coughing, and lung inflammation. Reducing CO2 emissions through the use of carbon offsets would lead to improved public health in terms of asthma, respiratory allergies, airway diseases, and lung cancer. Reduced carbon emissions would also reduce the number of air pollution-related deaths, thereby easing pressure on healthcare systems.

Here’s How Carbon Offsetting Protects the Biosphere

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to the long-term survival of the planet’s ecosystems, plant populations, and animal populations. These three components make up our biosphere, known as the ecological system that integrates all living things and their environments.

Biosphere: the regions of the surface, atmosphere, and hydrosphere of the earth (or analogous parts of other planets) occupied by living organisms.”

Oxford Dictionary

Climate change disrupts the ecological balance between plant and animal species by increasing competition and forcing relocation. Although these populations have evolved to adapt to changes in the past, they are unable to keep up with the current rate of rapid climate change. And when they cannot adapt, they face extinction. 

  • Animals: Can adapt more easily to climate change than plants, but they would still be hit hard by climate change. Endemic, those species living in one exclusive area, would be hit the hardest and would be the most likely to go extinct because they cannot survive anywhere else. 

We should care about maintaining plant and animal populations because healthy ecosystems have been linked with cleaner air, water, and food. Protecting forest habitats increases carbon sequestration and defends against erosion. Protecting agricultural land ensures a robust, secure, and prosperous food system. Protecting aquatic ecosystems ensures a readily available supply of fresh water. Lastly, protecting biodiversity protects human health because many plants and animals are used in modern medicines

Reducing carbon emissions through the use of carbon offsets can slow the effects of climate change, thereby ensuring a healthy biosphere.

How Can You Have the Greatest Impact with Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets can be much more effective if they meet certain key criteria and project standards.

Here are key criteria to look for in a carbon offset program:

  • A clearly defined protocol that determines which types of projects are eligible and how emission reductions will be measured
  • Independent third-party verification of compliance with the protocol
  • Registration of offsets in an offset registry, which tracks each credit with a unique serial number to ensure it is only used once 

Carbon offset project standards assure transparency and quality in the creation, quantification, and verification of offset projects. This way you can ensure that the project is actually reducing CO2 emissions. The following are recognized carbon offset standards:

  • Verified Carbon Standard (VCS): Considered the world’s leading voluntary GHG program, with 1700+ projects having removed 630+ million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. Examples of projects include hydropower in Turkey, forest conservation in Peru, and landfill gas capture in China.

Choosing carbon offset projects from any of the above project standard registries helps ensure that your project is verified and that it actually reduces CO2 emissions. And this in turn reduces the probability of carbon offset greenwashing.

If used correctly, carbon offsets have the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change. 

Final Thoughts

Carbon offsets are controversial because they do not target the root cause of our CO2 emissions and they are only effective if certain standards are upheld. Even then, there are not enough offsets for all of our emissions. If used correctly, carbon offsets can mitigate climate change, improve air quality, and protect the biosphere. 

In order to create a sustainable future for generations to come, we cannot allow carbon offsets to be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Many of their limitations can be overcome by reducing your own carbon emissions before relying on offsetting. Offsets need to be used in conjunction with carbon reduction measures until the industry has time to invest, develop, and refine sustainable innovations.

Stay impactful,

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