What is carbon offsetting and is it worthwhile?

15.10.20 By
This content is more than one year old

Australia’s climate is in crisis. 

The unprecedented extent of drought and record heat through 2019 would have already been remarkable on its own. But even this was overshadowed by the terrifying bushfires which claimed lives and properties across the continent. And then we saw the third mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in five years.

Whether you personally faced one of these climate-driven disasters, we have all been affected by them—even if only through witnessing the intolerable suffering of others around us, our wildlife and the places we cherish.

The crises that occurred under our super-heated atmosphere have led to many people seeking out ways to reduce their own impact. One topic that is raised time and again by our community is whether, and how, to offset greenhouse gas emissions.

The answer is more complicated than you would think. 

The Climate Council’s recommendation on this is based around the following principles:

  1. Offsetting greenhouse gas emissions with vegetation projects–for example, by planting trees–is no substitute for preventing the burning of coal, oil and gas in the first place.
  2. The most important thing to do is find ways to prevent the burning of coal, oil and gas in the first place.
  3. After reducing consumption of fossil fuels as much as possible–and after putting in place plans to reduce their use by more in the future–if you choose to offset fossil fuel use, it is best to do so with projects that avoid fossil fuel use rather than through vegetation-based projects.
  4. Restoring Australian landscapes is essential on its own terms, not just for environmental reasons, but also to manage climate change. And vegetation-based offsetting is better than nothing at all.

Taking action on climate change means one thing above all else: Australia, along with every other country, must drastically reduce consumption of coal, oil and gas. The atmosphere is overloaded with heat-trapping gases. Put simply, to avoid making climate change worse, we must stop adding to the problem.

The sooner we stop burning fossil fuels, the better it is for the destabilisation of the climate. It is not possible to meet the globally-agreed temperature goals without very deep, urgent and enduring cuts to fossil fuel consumption.

It is vital that we break the cycle of fossil fuel consumption. Personally being carbon neutral is not enough.

Planting trees and avoiding burning fossil fuels are not the same

Planting trees to draw a tonne of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is simply not the same thing as not burning the coal, oil and gas that put the carbon dioxide there in the first place. 

At the most basic level: vegetation lives, dies and seeds new generations over time. As it grows, it draws carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But when the vegetation dies and rots, most of this carbon dioxide is re-released back into the atmosphere. Regardless of its source, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, warming the atmosphere until it is drawn back down by vegetation, the oceans, the land, or some other temporary carbon store.

Natural, permanent storage of carbon dioxide through vegetation takes millions of years. The consumption of coal takes minutes. The rate at which vegetation takes up carbon dioxide means it simply can’t compete. To prevent the world from warming more than it already has, we need to immediately and permanently stop superheating the climate through our consumption of fossil fuels.

Alongside this, it is also important to consider the effect that climate change will have on vegetation-based offsetting projects.

Under climate change, storing carbon in trees becomes increasingly unstable. Drought, fire and flood — as well as long term shifts in local climates — will see many of the offset projects created today destroyed over the coming decades. Just as before, as these trees die this carbon is re-released into the atmosphere to warm the planet.

This makes tree planting a poor substitute for avoiding greenhouse gas emissions in the first place.

Until the burning of coal, oil and gas ends, the world will continue to warm. That requires more than individual action. It requires more than offsetting. It requires a movement pushing for large-scale, systemic change.

If you can’t avoid fossil fuel use, use fossil fuel avoiding offsets

As discussed above, the planet will continue to get hotter while the atmosphere continues to be loaded up with greenhouse gases. Reducing the rate at which we use coal, oil and gas will slow this heating, but not stop it. The only way to stop increasing the temperature of the planet is to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

So before attempting to offset emissions through other means, it is important to look hard at ways we can reduce consumption of fossil fuels. 

If you are planning to offset unavoidable fossil fuel use, our advice is to offset like-for-like. If the source of greenhouse gas emissions is burning fossil fuels, then this should be offset through projects that avoid the consumption of fossil fuels elsewhere.

There is no reason that you must use an established offsetting process to do this. One of the best ways to make sure you have driven positive change is to see it through personally.

Community-based renewables projects — such as rooftop solar with battery backup — in schools, sports clubs, churches, or even local businesses are a powerful way to shift the balance in favour of decarbonisation. It is a method that can be endlessly replicated and every project comes with unique benefits for the local community.

Restoring landscapes is still important!

Offsetting will never be a substitute for the fundamental shifts that are required to avoid ever worsening climate change. But nonetheless, we will need to repair past harm done to the global climate. The super-charged release of greenhouse gas emissions over the past several decades has driven today’s super-charged extreme weather. The only way that we put the genie back in the bottle is if we draw these emissions back down. But for now, the most pressing task is for us to stop making the problem worse.

In 2015, the global community committed to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels while pursuing efforts to limit the overheating of the planet to 1.5°C. There is no pathway to meeting those goals that does not require a massive effort to repair past harm by pulling greenhouse gases back out of the atmosphere between now and 2100. This means landscape restoration will be important on its own terms rather than as a substitute for reducing emissions at their source. 

Restoring our landscapes also has remarkable benefits in terms of improving our ability to weather the storm on future extreme events. And then there are the benefits quite apart from climate change such as through ecosystems repair, biodiversity promotion, reducing air pollution along with many, many other benefits.

But this isn’t offsetting any more. This is landscape restoration done because landscape restoration is important, not to grant permission for fossil fuel use.

The more coal, oil and gas we use on our way to net zero, the more landscape restoration and repair we will need to do to protect the lives, livelihoods and property, as well as the ecosystems we love and depend on.

Top tips for having a positive impact

With that in mind, here are our tips for having a supersized positive impact:

  1. Support (or create!) campaigns that push for large-scale emissions reduction. The only long-term solution to prevent the overheating of the planet is to reduce the consumption of coal, oil and gas to zero and .
  2.  Reduce or eliminate the use of fossil fuels in your life. Think hard about whether and when you fly and drive. Electrify your home. Switch to alternate means of transport as much as you can.
  3. Reduce or eliminate the use of all fossil fuel generated energy in your life. Go solar or buy certified 100% renewable electricity. Increase the efficiency of your home and appliances. Get off gas. Shift that thermostat!
  4. Reduce or eliminate the use of fossil fuel dependent products and services in your life. Seek out businesses that are doing the right thing by the climate. Switching your bank and superannuation provider is one of the highest impact activities many people can do.
  5. Talk about it. You can multiply the impact of your actions several times over if you bring others along with you, so make sure you talk to others about what you’ve done, why you’ve done it, and the benefits to family, friends and colleagues.
  6. Offset what you can’t avoid. Better yet, offset even more than you use.
  7. FINALLY, support the restoration of landscapes because doing this is important on its own terms, not just to offset your own personal responsibility.