Imagine the climate is an aeroplane. Like all planes, there’s an integrated system of machinery and expertise keeping it airborne. On this very important flight, political leaders and global companies are the pilots making the decisions that keep things running smoothly, while climate regulations are the ‘navigation’ tools that guide our plane onwards through the air.
The path to a sustainable future has been a turbulent one so far. Humanity hasn’t done a great job at keeping our plane at high altitudes. Just as we discover a way to clear half of the oceans plastic in the next five years, a mega-mine gains approval to dredge waters near our Great Barrier Reef. Just as soon as Apple makes a ‘closed-loop’ recycling pledge, Trump pulls the USA out of the Paris agreement.
But in all of this uncertainty, one fact cannot be contested: climate change is here to stay. Our planet is on a trajectory towards a 2-degree “plane crash” of global warming and teamwork on a global scale is required to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the environmental, economic and social impacts this change will create. Politicians may fight, and unsustainable deals might be made – but the rest of us are getting on with the business of climate mitigation, implementing the tools and measures available to us now to ensure a cleaner, sustainable future for all.
So how do we slow our climate airplane for a smooth landing? Better yet, how do we stop it from going down at all? One of the most broadly implemented voluntary measures available to companies and individuals today is carbon offsetting. While it’s a term commonly thrown about by politicians, the details of what it actually involves (and what it means for our climate) can often be unclear.
What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offsetting can be, on the one hand, seen as a parachute: it acts to slow the descent of our plane and give the world more time to prepare for impact. At the same time, carbon offsetting creates a range of opportunities and benefits beyond the environment, which means it can also double up as an extra jet engine for our airplane. It’s a system for creating new pathways within the economy that support sustainable growth while providing an immediate solution for the emission of harmful greenhouse gases warming up our planet.
Put simply, “carbon offsetting” refers to the process in which an organisation or an individual invests in a sustainability project or initiative to mitigate a certain amount of carbon emissions that they themselves produce (for example, from burning fossil fuels to power an office building, or the carbon dioxide produced from taking an international flight).
The sustainability project can be located anywhere in the world, and involves anything from planting trees to sequester carbon to replacing carbon intensive fossil fuel power with renewable wind-powered energy. To provide offsets, the project’s activity results in the reduction of carbon emissions in some way.
So by investing in such a project (known as “the purchase of carbon credits“), the buyer is facilitating practices that reduce carbon emissions somewhere else in the world, contributing to emission reductions on a global scale. Thus, depending on the amount of credits bought, their own carbon emissions are neutralised or “offset” in the process.
Benefits beyond carbon
Carbon offsetting isn’t about paying to continue with bad habits, nor is it a simple act of exchanging cash for an abstract amount of CO2 in a far off country. There is a complex and highly regulated system of standards in place to ensure that projects create the most tangible sustainable outcomes possible. Project standards set criteria by which projects are chosen and evaluated, and differ depending on whether the carbon credits are traded in the voluntary or compliance carbon market. Standards normally include criteria for the type of project, the project’s impact on local communities, and the additional emission reductions it contributes to.
In simple terms, one could think of standards like the “fair-trade” and “organic” labels of the food world. For example, voluntary standards like the Voluntary Gold Standard (VGS) and the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) ensure a project is really producing the amount of carbon that it claims to be. The recently launched Gold Standard for Global Goals (GSGG) is a label that projects can claim when they meet at least three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the Paris Agreement.
For example, the Kariba REDD+ forest protection project in Zimbabwe reduces carbon emissions through a range reforestation practices. But by doing so, it also creates jobs, better health care, education opportunities and new income streams for local communities, improving the economy and the livelihoods in the project area – all made possible because companies overseas buy carbon credits! Similarly, the Caceres and Cravo Norte project in Colombia re-introduces biodiversity to degraded land and creates 150 jobs, while the Chorchaiwat Wastewater Treatment project in Thailand improves air quality for surrounding inhabitants, and uses the money made from carbon credits to fund social and educational activities within local communities.
Suddenly, our carbon offsetting ‘parachute’ isn’t just slowing down climate change – it’s acting as that extra jet engine, helping to realise an economically viable, sustainable future for communities all over the world.
Offsetting for a culture of sustainability
In the aftermath of the Paris Agreement, the world is changing. As governments set out to meet the Nationally Determined Contributions pledged at Paris, companies are beginning to understand pre-compliance as a savvy business move. The shift towards a low-carbon economy is already taking place, and the sooner we start implementing low-carbon measures in both our company ethos and our daily lives, the sooner the economic potential of a low-carbon pathway can be unlocked.
While offsetting is a great way to mitigate for the emissions we can’t avoid (and to reach 100% carbon neutrality if you’re a company), there are many holistic ways we can, on an individual level, ‘go carbon neutral’. Reducing the amount of energy we consume, making sure our investments are supporting a greener future, or choosing low-carbon modes of transport are just some of small changes we can make in our daily lives to reduce our carbon footprint. The We Act Challenge is a great way to understand the ways routines and habits can become more sustainable, setting out a range of fun activities companies can try to achieve a low-carbon office. To multiply the impact, for every action done during the We Act Challenge 2017, South Pole will compensate 5 kg of CO2 through a climate project selected by the participants
By being more mindful about reducing our carbon footprint, and offsetting the emissions that we can’t reduce with high quality carbon emissions projects, we can create a culture that not only slows the warming of our planet, but unlocks business potential and socio-economic benefits for communities all over the world.
Let’s embrace a culture of sustainability and keep our climate aeroplane in the air.
 Carbon markets exist under both compliance schemes and as voluntary programs. Compliance markets are created and regulated by mandatory national, regional or international carbon reduction regimes. Voluntary markets function outside of compliance markets and enable companies and individuals to purchase carbon offsets on a voluntary basis with no intended use for compliance purposes. Standards for these two markets differ.
 Standards alone cannot ensure the quality of a project, which is why there is a great deal of verification work involved. It is only through the validation and verification of these standards that projects can reliably be evaluated. Verification consists of the periodic monitoring and review of ongoing projects in addition to an evaluation after the project period has ended. The monitoring ensures that the project is meeting goals and operating properly.