Busting Carbon Offsetting Myths

Published 13 April 2021

10 myths around net zero and carbon offsetting busted

The science tells us that we need to more than halve emissions by 2030 if we stand any chance of meeting the Paris target of limiting climate warming to 1.5°C; this is equivalent to eliminating the current emissions of China, India, the EU, and the US combined.

To make this happen, we need to use every tool in the box – and we need to take action now as well as having longer term plans for net zero.

Carbon offsetting is a robust, immediate, and measurable way for businesses to take responsibility for their current carbon footprint now, whilst on their journey to net zero. Yet many businesses may still be reluctant to offset their carbon emissions. Why? Largely because of the many misconceptions that are out there around offsetting.

We are the first to highlight that carbon offsetting is not a silver bullet for tackling climate change. But when done right, it is an important part of an effective climate or carbon management strategy. Businesses should follow a hierarchy of actions. They need to measure and understand their footprint, reduce, and avoid what emissions they can and then look to offset, or balance, those residual emissions that they cannot reduce.

In this article we aim to bust many of those myths that are currently out there regarding carbon offsetting and give your business the facts it needs as it journeys towards net zero.

Let’s start with the big one...

1. Offsetting is not going to tackle climate change

It is true that, offsetting alone will not tackle climate change. However, as experts around the world agree, it is an essential part of our journey to net zero. Most companies will not be able to reach net zero without it as there will always be some stubborn or hard to address residual emissions.

We need to move to a low-carbon world as quickly as possible. But even in the best-case scenario, this transition will take time. As such, while we work on reducing our emissions (often involving long term systemic changes to decarbonize existing business models), we need to do something about the carbon emissions we are producing today. Funding an equivalent amount of carbon emissions reductions through voluntary carbon offsetting is an effective way to take responsibility for this carbon footprint and buys us time while we develop new processes and technology to reduce it.

Organizations like WWF, SBTi, Oxford University, the UN, and the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets all agree that carbon offsetting plays a vital role on our journey to net zero. The conversation has moved on from ‘should companies offset emissions?’, to ‘how should companies offset emissions?’

2. We just need to reduce our carbon footprint, not offset emissions

In short, we need to do both. We all have a carbon footprint, regardless of how hard we try to reduce it. Even with the most determined efforts to cut emissions at source, we are all still responsible for some carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere. All of which is causing global climate change.

We could choose to ignore this. Taking no action to tackle the consequences of those unavoidable emissions, which might dwarf everything we’ve been able to cut. Or we can ensure that an equivalent amount of carbon is either absorbed or avoided elsewhere, through carbon offsetting. To achieve climate neutrality, offsetting the carbon emissions that cannot be reduced is currently the only effective way.

3. Carbon offsetting should be a step-by-step process

Companies need to take full responsibility for all the emissions they produce both today and tomorrow. On the journey to net zero, a business will need to measure and disclose their emissions and set a science-based target for reduction. Businesses need to take action to reduce their emissions in line with what the science says is needed and then offset what is left - their residual emissions. It’s not a step-by-step process, the key is actually to drive actions simultaneously and at pace, and then modify and adjust moving forward.

Put simply, we are up against a deadline to tackle climate change, and there isn’t time to take things one step at a time. Ultimately, it is today’s emissions that are causing tomorrow’s climate change and we need organizations to take full responsibility by offsetting their carbon emissions right now.

4. Carbon offsetting is just a guilt free way to carry on emitting

We would always say that companies must set and deliver against carbon reduction targets, as well as offset their emissions. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and; they must be done simultaneously. The climate emergency is urgent, and we need to do everything in our power to tackle it collaboratively.

And the truth is, businesses who offset emissions are putting a voluntary tax on their carbon pollution that will only increase over time. This helps focus the whole business on reducing this cost through reduction and also (perhaps most importantly) initiates behavior changes from the top. In fact, research shows that the typical offset buyer cut almost 17% of their scope 1 (direct) emissions, while the typical non-offset buyer reduced scope 1 emissions by less than 5% in the same year.

5. Going carbon neutral is just for CSR

Over the past 18 months, there has been a substantial shift in how many corporations think about the impact they are having on the environment. An increasing public awareness of climate change and changing consumer behaviors has catalyzed this shift, which when combined with pressures coming from investors and governments, has driven increasing climate ambition and action in the investment space. So much so in fact, that companies that have previously engaged with climate change mitigation mainly due to corporate social responsibility (CSR) are now beginning to see it as a business-critical issue.

Going carbon neutral can deliver a range of business benefits – from demonstrating environmental credentials and building customer confidence in your brand, to improving staff engagement with your broader sustainability programs. It can even deliver business growth opportunities – building resilience in supply chains, supporting growth in key markets and helping to launch new products and services.

6. Offsetting is too expensive

Here’s one myth we can’t bust, because frankly, offsetting should be expensive. This is to reflect the true cost of climate change. Currently companies are able to pollute our climate at no cost. Companies that choose to offset their emissions are effectively putting a price on carbon for their business.

Putting carbon emissions on the balance sheet focuses attention on the issue, helping drive internal reductions, justify investment into new, low carbon business models, and will demonstrate behavioral change.

Over time, as more companies move to become net zero, we expect to see the price of carbon rising and we’re encouraging companies to think ahead and work with a partner who can develop a long-term offset strategy for their business. This can include new project development to manage long term price risk.

7. Lots of us are working from home now, so our footprint is low

It’s not just air travel or commuting you need to think about when it comes to your carbon footprint. In fact, digital footprint is a growing problem, especially in light of the pandemic. In our rush to stream, send emails, run video calls, store data, and update our social media posts, we’ve lost sight of how energy-hungry the digital industry really is.

The internet and digital technology involve far more than just the energy required to run our devices. Rather, the storing of data, otherwise known to us all as ‘the cloud’, is one of the worst offenders of all. Far from being invisible, the cloud and the technical components to run it, generate extremely high emissions.

The carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them accounts for 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions. And these emissions are predicted to double by 2025 too.

8. There are no carbon reduction projects we can support in the UK

There are many excellent carbon reduction projects in the UK, largely focused on creating, restoring, and preserving native habitats. These projects follow the same robust methodologies, carbon measurement, and verification processes used internationally.

By their nature, many of these projects take many years to produce verified carbon reductions, and so require more up-front funding, which carries increased risk.

Where they exist, you can purchase verified emissions reductions from these projects, but do keep in mind that international agreements mean that it is not currently possible to use these to offset your business emissions or claim climate neutrality. This is because the UK Government currently claims all carbon reductions make in the UK towards its own climate targets.

International rules set out where carbon offset projects can take place – and these are mostly in the developing world. Supporting carbon reduction in the developing world has multiple benefits though. It is often a cost-effective way to reduce global carbon emissions and it channels funding to projects that deliver social impact, sustainable development and help communities adapt to the effects of climate change.

9. My business is too small to offset

It’s not the size of your business, but the size of your carbon footprint that counts.

Any business, no matter what size it is, can make a difference in tackling the climate crisis and work towards becoming net zero. Climate change is the single biggest issue that the world faces today, and we all have to play our part.

The UK Government has legislated to achieve net zero for the UK as a whole by 2050. Reducing emissions to net zero by 2030 gives us a better chance of keeping warming within the 1.5° target set out under the Paris Agreement. Multiple companies, of all sizes, have pledged to achieve net zero by 2030 and are currently considering how they can also influence their customers and supply chain to reduce their emissions too.

10. Going carbon neutral is the same as net zero

The terminology can be complex here. Going carbon neutral today is a way for companies to take immediate action whilst they set themselves on course to meet their longer-term net zero target.

Going carbon neutral by offsetting all emissions through high quality, independently verified carbon reduction (avoidance and removal) projects is the only way a company can take full responsibility for its current carbon footprint. This is because going carbon neutral today compensates for a company’s existing carbon footprint immediately. This status should then be maintained whilst the firm takes steps to reduce its emissions as close to zero as possible, in line with a science-based target. In time the size of that company’s footprint will reduce and the amount they need to compensate for will reduce. The organization will become net zero when it reaches its science-based carbon reduction target and compensates for all its remaining emissions through carbon removals projects.

They could then even go as far to work towards becoming carbon negative and take even more of a competitive share.

In busting these myths, we hope to empower businesses of all sizes, to take responsibility for their climate impacts. We ask them to step up to, not only pledge their support, but also to take action today. Ultimately, it is today’s emissions that are causing tomorrow’s climate change and we need organizations to take full responsibility for them right now.