The carbon offset market could be worth $200 billion by 2050. But what is it?

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So what is that, exactly? the idea that any carbon emitting process, from one long-haul flight For electricity generation, this can be offset by paying someone else to plant trees, preserve a forest, or create renewable energy.

In other words: you can take that flight to Hawaii without harming the planet.

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In theory, this is a good idea, and it helps people feel less guilty about polluting activities. According to German bank Bernberg, the carbon offset market is expected to reach $200 billion by 2050, making it a massive business.

But the industry is still relatively young, and extremely complex. Experts have cast doubt on the climate benefits of some offsetting programs, and there is no better way to protect the planet than by rapidly decarbonizing our energy systems and industries..


enter kyoto

Carbon offsetting has its roots in the 1997 United Nations climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, where industrialized nations agreed to reduce their carbon emissions. This gave rise to the “compliance system”, where countries and companies that have exhausted their carbon allocations can buy credits from entities that have not used up their full allowances.

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“The compliance system works because it’s a legal framework and so companies have to work really hard to comply,” said Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science at University College London. “It increases efficiency and gets companies to decarbonize in the most efficient and quick way because there are some industries that can decarbonize much faster than others.”

But the system has its flaws. A 2015 study by the Stockholm Environment Institute estimated that a mechanism designed to facilitate carbon credit trading would have enabled the release of 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, “if countries meet their emissions targets.” get it done at the domestic level.

This is because many countries initially raised their carbon emissions targets, creating large credit surpluses, which they were able to sell to allow others to keep pollution at bay.

However, early problems did not derail the idea of ​​carbon offsetting. As the climate crisis grew in the public consciousness, so did the willingness for individuals and companies not to be subject to compliance schemes to offset their emissions through voluntary offsets.

power of the people?

The voluntary market is small but growing rapidly. In 2020, consulting firm McKinsey estimates that about 95 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents were offset, or more than double 2017 levels. Although a huge increase, this figure is still only 0.25% of the 38 billion metric tons emitted. 2019

“I think there’s an appeal [to the public] Because it seems like an easy way to tackle a very complex problem,” said Louisa Casson, senior political strategist at Greenpeace International.

Buying carbon offsets is really easy. Many airlines offer consumers the option of offsetting flights for a small additional fee. Meanwhile, more and more food and even some oil products are being labeled carbon neutral as producers offset the associated emissions.

Voluntary offsets, as of now, are not overseen by any regulatory body.

“There’s very, very little regulation, if any, in the voluntary carbon market space. It’s kind of the Wild West,” Casson said. “That means we’re looking at widely varying standards.”

easier said than done

Criticism of the voluntary market usually relates to the method by which carbon savings are calculated.

For example, some offer credit for preserving an existing forest – not planting a new one. Models estimate how much forest would have been cut down if the forest had not been protected, and then calculate the carbon benefit of saving trees. It can then be sold as credit.

A lot is at stake. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, about 12% of global emissions are due to deforestation and forest degradation.

Peak oil is coming.  it won't save the world

But the models are notoriously unreliable. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States analyzed the effectiveness of some carbon offset projects in the Brazilian Amazon. The study found that three quarters of forest protection areas are “unlikely to represent a reduction in additional emissions” due to continued deforestation.

Then there’s “climate colonialism,” where the needs of wealthy outsiders are prioritized over those of indigenous peoples in search of offsets. For example, a report by Amnesty International revealed the people of Sengwar Kenyans were violently forced from their homes in the Ambobat forest and evicted from their ancestral land as part of a government plan to reduce deforestation. A representative for the Kenyan Forestry Service justified the evictions by telling Reuters: “We need to protect the forests. They shouldn’t be in the forest. It’s against the law.”

Members of the Sengwar community living in the Ambobut forest gather to march to the office of President Uhuru Kenyatta.

When done well, offsets can be a lifeline for carbon-absorbing ecosystems threatened by human encroachment.

When Covid-19 hit the tourism industry, many protected areas around the world lost a major source of their conservation funding. According to Conservation International, in the Chulu Hills of Kenya, the loss of ecotourism income was greater than that of carbon offsetting projects, allowing officials to hire more rangers to tackle poaching and deforestation.

As well as locking up carbon stored in trees, conservation and reforestation of woodland benefits biodiversity, improves soil health and protects against erosion and flooding.

Ultimately, though, offsets can only do so much to stop climate change.

“We have to be very careful when we look at carbon offsets because they are an added bonus when we are dealing with climate change, but they are not the solution,” Maslin said. “Reforestation or re-wilding the world can only go so far… the solution to climate change is the rapid decarbonization of our energy systems.”


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