Carbon Offsets: Pros and Cons

Posted on May 7, 2011 by

A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for or to offset an emission made elsewhere. It is measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e). One carbon offset represents the reduction of one metric ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other greenhouse gasses.

Carbon neutrality is a state attained by an organization, a person, an activity or an event by equating the GHG emissions and removals (or offsets). For example, if a factory operation results in emission of 100 tonnes equivalent of CO2 per annum, the said factory can become carbon neutral by either creating GHG sinks (such as forests/plantation) that would absorb equivalent GHG emissions (through photosynthesis) or by generating energy required for its operations through renewable sources such as wind, biomass or solar among others. Such renewable energy offsets the emissions, displacing fossil fuel intensive electricity from the grid.

The process of measuring, monitoring and reducing carbon footprint over time allows individuals or organizations reduce their contribution to global warming as they take steps including switch to renewables and plantations. Carbon emission reduction programs are viewed as a positive step towards carbon management and structured methodologies such as the GHG protocol and the PAS2050 have been developed to quantify and report the same.

Is it just another illusion?

Some environmentalists argue that offset programs are just illusions that emitting entities put as their façade when behind the engines, the same emissions are happening. This means that carbon offsets could be used as an excuse to pollute. For example, an emission intensive business buys offsets believing that it would negate the emission produced by its operations. What is problematic is that while theoretically, the business has reduced its emission. “The truth is, once you’ve put a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere there’s nothing offsetting can do to stop it changing our climate.” Says Charlie Kronick, head of Greenpeace’s climate and energy campaign UK.

It’s a step forward!

Broader awareness about climate change and its implications on businesses and livelihoods has happened only in the last 15-20 years. With this view in mind, most government, private and public entities have demonstrated their eagerness to reduce the pressure on the natural systems. Offset programs as with other programs are a result of the immediate requirements to counter the threats of climate change within the framework of the current economic systems, involving negotiations between nations with different economic, social and developmental contexts. Offsetting gives stakeholders a stepping stone towards a more stringent system as the whole world progresses towards a low carbon economy.

Both approaches – switch to renewables and sequestration development have their merits and demerits. Renewables, though costlier compared to conventional options are important part of reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Sequestration, though limited by the scale at which it can be developed, can provide a very sustainable all-round development including ecology, hydrology and local economies.

Irrespective of the path, the goal of reducing the looming threat of climate change is crucial for sustainability of our current socio-economic systems.

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Posted in: Carbon Markets