Voluntary carbon offsets: a false good idea?
The promise of individual carbon neutrality can seem appealing. This is what carbon offsetting is about. However, benefits may not be the ones expected.
What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offsetting consists in counterbalancing its own carbon emissions by financing programs, which aim at reducing other CO2 emissions elsewhere in the world. This mechanism is mostly applied to CO2 but can also be used for other greenhouse gases.
Carbon offsets take place on two different markets:
The first one involves governments, companies and other entities within the framework of the Kyoto protocol. It is based on a cap-and-trade system for which a central authority allocates or sells to polluters a number of permits that should equal the amount of each polluter’s emissions. The European Union (EU) has set a specific cap-and-trade market for European member countries called the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. In order to encourage emissions reduction, the initial cap can be set lower than the actual global emissions.
Carbon trade also operates on a non-regulated market: these are voluntary carbon offsets. Individuals as well as any organisation wishing to limit its own carbon emissions can buy carbon offsets to support carbon neutral initiatives. These projects are very diverse and cover most of the means deployed to mitigate global warming. They include energy efficiency projects, forest- and soil-use-related initiatives, renewable energies or waste management and reduction activities.
Why carbon offsetting isn’t a good answer to global warming
At first glance, voluntary carbon offsets seem to be an affordable and effective way to contribute to the fight against climate change: only a few euros are enough to compensate the harm done to the planet when buying a polluting good, easy isn’t it?
In fact, voluntary carbon offsetting is mainly a way to clear your conscience. This initiative doesn’t encourage behavioural changes in favour of a more sober way of life. Not only is carbon offsetting postponing necessary efforts to reduce individual impact on the climate, but it is also a way to transfer responsibility from richer countries to poorer countries, where compensation projects take place. Beside this, the effectiveness of this mechanism is questionable. One of the most common applications to carbon offsetting is the compensation of air travels. In practice, a simple comparison from one airline to another and from one carbon offsetting initiative to another allows to observe calculation differences on both carbon emissions of a flight and currency conversions of these emissions. It seems that carbon offsetting is mostly benefitting polluting companies: by offering to customers a way to go carbon neutral, airlines are simply greening their appearance, and avoiding a potential stricter regulation (kerosene tax for instance). Last but not least, the voluntary carbon market can induce a rebound effect. Given the opportunity to buy carbon offsets, one will increase its carbon-emitting-good consumption…benefitting again the polluters.