What is "Carbon Offseting"?

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

Carbon Offsetting is an approach to compensate for the damage of burning fossil fuels (for example on long haul flights) by investing in schemes to mitigate the released CO2. Anyone can carbon offset and it's becoming popular. Here's what you need to know:

Carbon Offsetting


This article seeks to identify the features of the better carbon offset schemes; what type of projects are generally good, and which can be “iffy”; discusses one specific scheme which is used by a “love miles” TinT member; and a brief look at what airlines and the big holiday/tour companies are doing on carbon offsetting.


The aim of carbon offsetting is to match exactly the “carbon damage” done in one place with “carbon repair” elsewhere.  This means trying to ensure you are getting a tonne of benefit for a tonne of harm. 


Yes, the absolutely crucial priority is to reduce emissions (no question about that), not relying on offsetting, so why have a piece about carbon offsetting?


Well, three reasons.

  1. After we’ve done what we can to reduce our carbon footprint, what about the balance (and there will be some)

  2. The dilemmas presented by “love miles” – flying to see family who live abroad.Business travel. 

  3. Although a lot can be achieved by video links etc, some work cannot effectively be done other than by getting amongst “the muck and bullets” and clocking up a lot of air miles.

OK, carbon offsetting has had a pretty mixed press, and it’s tough to find a perfect scheme.  Although if we waited for perfection in everything in life we’d be out-waiting Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo).....


Moreover, having now researched the better schemes, and having read what many commentators/journalists have written, my conclusion is that the many journalists “knocking” carbon offset programmes are tarring all the schemes with the same brush, and ignore where it does work.  That is lazy journalism in my opinion. 


If you decide to go along with those who focus just on the carbon offset schemes that go wrong and effectively say we shouldn’t touch carbon offsetting with a barge pole, what are you going to do about your own residual carbon footprint after you’ve done what you can, or are prepared to do, on carbon reduction????



Features of better carbon offset schemes

  • Sustainable i.e. “owned” by the local people who are the recipients of the scheme.  The scheme may need to provide them with training and capacity building to continue the project long term.

  • Realistic in actually saving or reducing carbon dioxide emissions beyond what would have happened anyway and sustained over time.

  • Accountable.  Must be able to demonstrate real emissions savings/reductions, with baseline study and independent active monitoring, and without double counting.

  • Verifiable.  Methodology for calculating carbon savings/reductions checked by independent experts, and based on recognised authoritative sources.  Calculations provided openly eg on website for others to check what is claimed is true.

The Gold Standard


Reviewers of carbon offsetting recommend schemes complying with the Gold Standard

https://www.goldstandard.org/

Quoting from its website “Gold Standard for the Global Goals is a next-generation standard designed to accelerate progress toward the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, allowing a broad range of projects and programmes to quantify, certify, and maximise their impacts.”


Reviewers go on to note that Gold Standard does not require independent monitoring of carbon offset programmes, with examples given of projects that went awry as a result.

So is there a carbon offset system that looks better than “Gold Standard”?

Well, maybe there is.  Doing the research for this piece I was told about Climate Stewards.  Having had a close look at them, it is very impressive, and does require independent monitoring. See https://www.climatestewards.org/


The Climate Stewards “Seal of Approval” can be used for small scale forestry projects, as well as renewable technologies such as clean cookstoves, water filters and small scale solar power.  They currently have five projects, 4 in Africa and 1 in Central America.  The website gives details and how they were chosen.


This brings us to types of offset projects generally considered to be good, and those considered to be “iffy”.


“We recommend offsetting at the level of individual projects (rather than just giving to an organisation’s whole portfolio) because this is the level at which there is most information available.” (Josie Wexler Ethical Consumer Dec 2017)


“Good offsets really can be win-win, provided that the projects they fund are genuinely beneficial, long-lasting projects that would not have happened anyway” (Chris Woodford Sept 2018).


Renewable energy projects are considered ideal by some commentators, although in some places other projects might give more immediate benefit e.g. safe drinking water.


Offset projects occur in most countries, including UK, not just developing countries.   For example see ClimateCare (who operate carbon offset projects on behalf of Audley Travel)

https://climatecare.org/project-map/


Those in developing countries often bring “co benefits”


“If your offsetting payment helps to plant trees in a strictly protected wildlife reserve in Africa, it will be creating new habitat for animals and helping to arrest declining biodiversity. It might provide employment to local people and it could bring in extra revenue from tourism that will help to lift people out of poverty.


Some offsetting projects help people in developing countries by supplying "intermediate technology"—things like low-tech solar-powered cookers. These reduce the need for women and children to spend hours collecting wood-fuel (which means children can spend more time in school) and bring health benefits too (indoor air pollution from solid fuel  and kerosene. Ed) is a major cause of respiratory illness and an estimated 4.3 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization, February 2016).”(Chris Woodford Sept 2018)


Offset projects generally considered problematic are large scale planting of trees/reforestation, and attempts to protect existing forest areas (for the latter discussion see

https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/energy/short-guide-carbon-offsets.)


What about airlines?

Well, some people have signed up to Flight-free 2019 (now Flight-Free 2020) committing to no flights for a year. The UK arm is at https://www.flightfree.co.uk/


Although the airline industry apparently accounts for “only” 2% of global carbon emissions, (yes, I find that figure hard to believe, as well) for someone who takes a long haul flight, that can be 50% of their annual carbon footprint.


Air industry emissions are increasing (possibly to 16% of global carbon footprint by 2050), although a lot of research ongoing to develop more efficient fuels, and lower carbon fuels, thus less CO2 emissions per mile flown.


The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) requires airlines to monitor and report their emissions from 2019, but it only covers emissions from international flights.  88% of Governments have signed up to it to date.  Those airlines based in countries that have volunteered to comply fully with CORSIA will need to do so from January 2021 and global mandatory compliance begins six years later. CORSIA’s carbon offsetting provisions, are set to take effect in 2021.  Until then carbon offsetting is a voluntary one by airlines who offer it.


For short haul flights, alternative transport, with lower carbon emission, is often feasible.


Looking at British Airways, Easyjet and Ryanair.


Easyjet appear to have no carbon offset scheme.  And its latest annual report and accounts has just a single sentence about environmental and social factors – no mention of climate change/CO2 emissions; although CO2 emissions per km flown is one of its 6 KPI’s and it boasts about being the most CO2 efficient airline in the world.


Ryanair.  At the end of their booking process a passenger can make a voluntary donation to one of their four 2019 charity partners see links later, especially for FirstClimate.  Whether the donation bears any relation to the CO2 emission from the flight being booked I don’t know.  Nor do I know if all the money donated goes to carbon offset programmes.  Nor do I know if you can pick a specific project, although that’s unlikely given the process, although donation direct to one of their partner charities could achieve this e.g.  some of the projects and the info provided by FirstClimate are very good, although one is a forest protection scheme

See https://www.firstclimate.com/en/our-projects-climateprotection-and-waterproject/ ;     

https://corporate.ryanair.com/monchique/

https://www.iwdg.ie/


British Airways has a carbon offset programme (The Carbon Fund) managed on its behalf by a charity, Carbon Leapfrog, which leapt to prominence when community energy schemes were being established, providing financial and legal support to such schemes. https://www.pureleapfrog.org/british-airways-carbon-fund shows some projects, although it isn’t clear what the current projects are, nor what the split is between UK and Africa projects.  Whilst this looks to be a market leader amongst the airlines reviewed here, it looks less transparent and less open to scrutiny than Climate Stewards.


The Carbon Fund is a voluntary scheme for British Airways’ customers who wish to travel responsibly and mitigate the impact of their journey. When booking a flight on ba.com, customers can choose whether to donate in support of low carbon, energy efficiency or renewable energy projects in the UK and Africa.


All projects have to have a community element to them and funding has to go towards the installation of renewable energy or energy efficiency measures and cannot go towards development costs. All projects also have to have a positive social impact in the local community, such as increasing education, health and well-being and reducing fuel poverty. 


This sounds good, although it is not at all clear how all the “boxes” of features of the better offset schemes are ticked.

Finally, what about holiday companies?

The UK’s two biggest remaining holiday companies are Tui UK and Jet2Holidays, and let’s take a look at Audley Travel as well (they are a high end tour operator).


Tui states ““Climate change is one of the greatest global challenges facing the international community.”  Their focus in this regard is on aircraft design, lower carbon fuels, and fuel efficiency to reduce carbon emission per km flown, with time-scaled targets for carbon reduction. 


Although I can find no mention of carbon offset for customers, they do have sustainability indices  https://www.tuigroup.com/en-en/responsibility/sustainable-investment  In addition one of their reports states The Tui Care Foundation looks to be an interesting programme (although does not seem to cover climate change)

https://www.tuigroup.com/en-en/responsibility/tui-care-foundation


Jet2 Holidays.  Although this airline has a comprehensive community programme, there is no mention of climate change in its risk management report (nor anywhere else that I could find), and, unlike Easyjet they do not have a KPI of CO2 emissions per km flown.  They have, though, won numerous awards .....  Their latest Corporate Social Responsibility Report referes to actions to reduce “harm to the environment” (sic) although no mention of climate change, and no targets.


Searching on the Internet for “The Tourism Industry Carbon Offset Service” gave nothing.  The Travel Foundation website has no reference to carbon offsetting that I could find.  It specialises in developing practical tourism sustainability projects

https://www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk/what-we-do/project-design-and-delivery/

This is the latest available Annual Review from The Travel Foundation (a charity)

https://www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk/annual-review-2017/


And lastly, how about one of the “high end” travel companies, Audley Travel.  Scrolling about halfway down this page gets you to carbon offsetting

https://www.audleytravel.com/about-us/responsible-travel


Carbon offset is mandatory for their own research flights, and voluntary for customers.

The programme is managed independently by ClimateCare https://climatecare.org/what-we-do/


The ClimateCare website has a carbon calculator enabling users to calculate the carbon footprint specific to their chosen holiday.  The carbon offset projects map is at https://climatecare.org/project-map/


PS - What about big business?


Two aspects.

First, the international PAS 2060 Standard for organisations seeking to be carbon neutral

https://www.bsigroup.com/en-GB/PAS-2060-Carbon-Neutrality/

The UK’s Carbon Trust, the world’s leading independent certification body for product footprints, is  Accredited by UKAS to certify footprints to PAS 2060. https://www.carbontrust.com/home/

Second, an energy/petrochem business, BP, has a Target Neutral programme https://www.bptargetneutral.com/uk/

This is governed by an Independent Advisory and Assurance Panel of prominent environmental and industry experts. The panel ensures that all policies and activities conform to best practice in carbon management, and where possible will set new standards for that best practice.

One element of Target Neutral is a carbon offsetting programme.  This link explains how projects are identified and developed https://www.bptargetneutral.com/uk/how-we-work/choosing-our-projects/

Any comments on this article (apart from its length!) are welcome to Brian via transition@tringintransition.org.uk or use the comments box below.


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Copyright Tring in Transition 2019