Tag: Offsetting

Ocean Bottle: Supporting blue carbon beyond offsetting

Ocean Bottle: Supporting blue carbon beyond offsetting

This blog was written in collaboration with Ocean Bottle, who have supported ACES’ projects for several years as part of their commitment to improving the health of the ocean and our planet. This blog was written as part of our ‘financing blue carbon ethically, responsibly and effectively’ series and explores different approaches to compensating for corporate carbon footprints and supporting marine conservation.

Ocean Bottle have supported ACES’ mangrove and seagrass projects for several years as part of their commitment to making the ocean, and our world, a better place. Ocean Bottle’s approach to sustainability goes beyond carbon calculations and ‘net zero’; that equating carbon emissions to offset purchases is inadequate. In line with this ethos, they are moving beyond carbon offsetting to a holistic approach to carbon reductions and developing carbon sinks by protecting natural ecosystems such as mangrove forests and seagrass meadows. This blog, written in collaboration with Ocean Bottle, explains the reasoning behind their strategy for emissions reductions and compensating for their unavoidable emissions. Ocean Bottle’s reasons for moving away from offsets include ethical, political and technical challenges to offsetting as a concept and the current offsetting landscape; this reasoning is described well in this document. Here, we focus on the political ethics of carbon offsetting, which raises important questions regarding how the offsetting landscape can be improved in order to incentivise systemic change.

The perspectives presented here are Ocean Bottle’s; however, as ACES, we welcome debate around carbon offsetting and support Ocean Bottle in their emissions reduction strategy. We are pleased to be able to continue working with Ocean Bottle on the development of blue carbon conservation and restoration activities in a way that goes beyond carbon credits.

Emissions reduction strategy

Ocean Bottle’s Emissions Reductions strategy follows three pillars: first by implementing emission reductions through their supply chain, then avoiding emissions in their value chain, and when necessary, developing carbon sinks by protecting natural ecosystems outside of their value chain. This follows the Carbone 4 emissions reductions framework.

While this framework is broadly similar to the ideal scenario for offsetting – reducing your scope 1 & 2 emissions, then scope 3 emissions, followed by offsetting or insetting unavoidable emissions – the biggest differences lie in pillar C.

Firstly, under Carbone 4’s framework, unavoidable (or residual) emissions should be compensated for through the development of carbon sinks such as blue carbon ecosystems. This is similar to ‘removal credits’ – carbon credits that result from the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere – but does not allow an equivalent to ‘reduction credits’ – credits which result from the reduction of CO2 entering the atmosphere. (It is important to note here that removal credits are also sometimes valued and preferred over reduction credits – such as in the Oxford Offsetting Principles).

Secondly, Carbone 4’s framework does not specify that offsets should be used to compensate for unavoidable emissions; it allows for a broader approach to funding activities that enhance natural carbon sinks. This is where Ocean Bottle’s perspective has changed from buying carbon offsets to a more holistic approach to enhancing blue carbon sinks.

Choosing carbon sinks over offsets

If Ocean Bottle are committed to funding the development of carbon sinks like mangroves and seagrass, why are they moving away from offsetting?

Offsetting as a concept has been heavily scrutinised, and the debate around the politics and ethics of offsetting has divided opinion. Critics of offsetting question whether offsetting allows society to delay making systemic changes – i.e., actual carbon reductions – by simply paying for offsets to compensate for carbon emissions. Whilst the morally responsible approach should be to first reduce your direct and indirect emissions as far as possible – as outlined in Carbone 4’s framework – there is nothing to mandate companies to do so (or indeed, to reduce or offset their emissions at all). Likewise, there is no regulation of how companies present or communicate their carbon reductions – a company that offsets all of their emissions without making reductions can report the same emissions reduction targets as a company that has made genuine carbon reductions in their own activities and supply chains (and has therefore contributed to systemic change). Actors in the offsetting market, including ACES, can and do take voluntary steps to guard against this injustice; however, Ocean Bottle’s perspective is that they do not want to play a part in a system that permits less ethical companies to take advantage of unregulated emissions reductions and reporting.

The reporting and carbon reduction strategy enforcements vary from country to country, but are, for the most part, only voluntary. This means that sub-par efforts and greenwashing by the world’s largest emitters will largely go unpunished.

Ocean Bottle

This raises an important question: what can be done to hold companies to account on their emissions reductions and offsetting (or other mitigation actions)? How can companies with genuine commitments to actually reducing their emissions, offsetting only their unavoidable emissions and if they do need to offset, researching their options and choosing high-quality credits with evidenced co-benefits – from companies that simply ‘pay to pollute’ by offsetting without reducing? There needs to be a clear, internationally-aligned reporting system under which consumers can scrutinise the steps that companies are taking to lower their carbon footprints, and thereby hold these companies to account. This would be a significant step towards facilitating systemic change – publicly rewarding companies like Ocean Bottle that go above and beyond to not only compensate for their emissions but have a positive impact through supporting projects that deliver biodiversity and community benefits.

Net zero: a global concept

By definition, a company cannot be carbon neutral… A better terminology which companies and individuals should follow, is to contribute to global neutrality with the purchase of offsets and other mechanisms.”

– Ocean Bottle

When the concept of ‘net zero’ was popularised in the conception of the Paris Agreement, it referred to global emissions – achieving an overall balance of sources and sinks of global greenhouse gases. It is only more recently that the term ‘net zero’ has been used by companies as a label of their emissions reductions or offsetting. Ocean Bottle, among others, believe that the concepts of net zero or carbon neutrality cannot be claimed by individual companies unless they are actively sinking carbon from the atmosphere – if they are still producing emissions then they are still a carbon ‘source’, regardless of offsets. Ocean Bottle suggest that rather than making ‘net zero’ or ‘carbon neutral’ claims, companies should use terminology such as “contributing to global neutrality with the purchase of offsets and other mechanisms”. They believe that not being able to trumpet about self-proclaimed neutrality will deter most companies from relying on offsets.

ACES perspective

Ocean Bottle’s approach to their emissions reductions is a gold-standard example of how companies can meaningfully engage with the climate crisis and their role in fighting it. They have critically questioned their own activities, including their emissions reduction activities so far, and shaped their way forwards based on extensive research and evidence-based perspectives.

Whilst their full reasoning for minimising their use of offsets is not always fully aligned with ACES’ views, we welcome debate regarding the ethics, politics, effectiveness and social justice of offsetting and our partnership with Ocean Bottle allows us to present this diversity of views on an open platform. Ultimately, we and Ocean Bottle share the same end goal: to contribute to a landscape in which climate action by companies is transparent, genuine, effective and socially and environmentally just.

Carbon offsetting: Is it greenwashing?

Carbon offsetting: Is it greenwashing?

Part of 2023 blog series: Financing Blue Carbon Ethically, Responsibly, and Effectively

Pressure is growing on businesses to show their environmental credentials, and as part of that, tackle their carbon emissions. Claims of ‘carbon neutral’, ‘net zero’ and even ‘climate positive’ are being used more and more by businesses keen to play their role in tackling the climate crisis – or at least look like they are. How can we tell which have make genuine and meaningful commitments and progress, and which are simply hiding behind confusing and obscure terminology?

When a business makes claims such as ‘carbon neutral’, ‘net zero’ or similar, it’s important to know exactly what that means.

Reducing a carbon footprint can be achieved in two ways: by reducing the emissions that your activities cause (such as driving or flying less, switching to renewable energy sources, or eating less meat) or offsetting emissions by paying for activities elsewhere that either reduce emissions or sequester (absorb and trap) greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.

These two strategies are not equal. Reducing our emissions is vital – the average carbon footprint of a Western lifestyle is unsustainably high, and systemic change is needed in order to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown. However, the transition to a low-carbon society is incomplete and reducing emissions is not always possible. Offsetting should only be used to compensate for these remaining emissions – or ‘unavoidable carbon’ – that cannot yet be reduced.

Whether a company reduces or offsets its emissions makes no difference to how their claims to carbon neutrality can be presented. Take two businesses: one of whom has transitioned to renewable heating sources on-site, swapped their fleet of petrol gars for electric vehicles and eliminated all business travel by plane or car; the other has made no changes to their business but has paid to offset their emissions. Both can make the same claims to have reduced their carbon footprint, despite the first business having invested more time and resources into achieving that reduction. This does not incentivise systemic change and can potentially mislead consumers into believing that a business is taking meaningful climate action. Offsetting has been criticised as a cheap and easy alternative to make systematic change; we strongly believe that they should not be used in this way and organisations should be transparent about how they have reached ‘net zero’ and commit to ongoing carbon reductions to reduce the need to offset.

However, the scenario above is binary – the ‘gold standard’ of doing everything possible to reduce, versus doing nothing at all and just buying offsets. The latter scenario is often used by critics of offsetting, claiming that offsets are cheap, quick and easy way to claim carbon neutrality. Unfortunately, there is nothing stopping companies from doing this – and there are certainly companies using offsets to make environmental claims whilst still contributing to climate change. However, our research has found that among our buyers, the reality is much more nuanced and that offsets are seen as one step in the path to ‘actual zero’ emissions: a necessary step for now but not a long-term strategy.  

Rather than thinking of companies as ‘perfect’ or ‘evil’ when it comes to carbon reductions, it is helpful to consider more realistic scenarios. Where is the line drawn between avoidable and unavoidable emissions? For example, the upfront costs of electric cars, heat pumps, insulation and other carbon-saving strategies are expensive, and government incentives are not always available. If a company or individual chooses not to opt for these on the basis of cost – even if they are a small, low-budget business – can the emissions really be counted as avoidable? Purists may say yes – that if you can’t afford to avoid the emissions, you should stop contributing to them altogether. In reality, this is unlikely to happen. Businesses need to stay afloat, people need their livelihoods, and in many cases businesses will (have to) opt for the most cost-effective option for them. There are instances when the burden of carbon reductions is too much to expect of individuals and even businesses – it is where strong, effective policies for carbon reductions are needed.

ACES believe in the ‘3 Ps’ as the principles for tacking the climate change, in order of importance: firstly, political change is needed; secondly, personal (and corporate) carbon reductions should be made, and lastly, paying to offset should be a last solution for emissions that cannot be reduced.

It is also important to consider the value of a carbon offset. Carbon credits are generated by activities undertaken to reduce the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere or remove emissions that are already there. They can be achieved by generating renewable energy, by changing land management practices such as farming methods that result in the release of carbon dioxide, by protecting and restoring forests, and other interventions that result in a ‘carbon benefit’. The diversity of these projects means that the offsets that they generate can mean anything from the financing of a large-scale wind farm with little community benefit, to funding grassroots forest conservation with community development at its core. This diversity brings with it a range of prices – from as little as $0.20 to $50 (and more) a tonne – and the price paid by the buyer may indicate their commitment to supporting projects that go above and beyond carbon, benefitting the wider environment and local people. Read more about how not all offsets are created equal here.

There is therefore a role for offsets in broader carbon reduction strategies and claiming ‘net zero’ in itself is not greenwashing. However, consumers should be aware of what this means and what a company can disguise with that claim, and businesses should make genuine and meaningful progress to reduce their carbon emissions before offsetting. It should be recognised that their ability to do so is, however, dependent to some degree on policies and government support to incentivise and enable them to reduce their emissions – while personal and corporate reductions are important, they come secondary to policy in their role in global carbon reductions. Businesses should be transparent about their commitment to ongoing carbon reductions and wider sustainability, and how their use of offsets contributes to their carbon reduction strategy; in doing so, allowing consumers to make informed judgements on their environmental credentials.

Not all offsets are created equal

Not all offsets are created equal

Not all offsets are created equal: what are “high quality carbon offsets”?

Our clients sometimes ask us what the difference is between carbon credits that they can buy for $5 a tonne, and those that cost $10, $50 or even more per tonne. Why pay more for the same outcome – a tonne of carbon sequestered?

Like all other products and services, carbon credits can vary widely in their quality. But what does this mean, and how can you tell a “high quality” offset from the rest?

Whether you pay $5 or $25 for a carbon offset, the outcome (for you) is the same: you can claim that you have offset that amount of your carbon footprint. However, there is much more to the process than this “behind the scenes” – including who benefits from the project interventions, what safeguards are put in place to ensure that local people are not disadvantaged, and how longevity of the carbon storage is ensured.

Any certified project – and we encourage buyers to look for certification when offsetting – must meet the requirements of carbon standards that set out how projects should operate, including calculating the carbon captured, how the community should be engaged, and how socio-economic factors should be considered. This means, on paper at least, that high standards are maintained. The principles and values vary between standards; for example, the Plan Vivo Standard places particular emphasis on the socio-economic development of less-developed nations and allows for flexibility in project design that enhances accessibility for small projects.

Certification is not failsafe, however: certified projects have been criticised on the grounds of human rights breaches, failing to ensure long-term carbon storage, and providing no carbon benefit beyond what would have occurred anyway. These criticisms are more common in the compliance carbon market than the voluntary market that we are part of (see here for an explanation of the two and their differences), however as project developers and carbon buyers, we need to ensure that these failures are not perpetuated in the projects that we run and choose to support.

So, what should buyers look for in a project?

Projects should be able to demonstrate how they engage with, involve and benefit the local community, and be able to provide evidence of this. Community consultations are a start, but are local people given opportunities to work for and govern projects? Does the project deliver financial, infrastructure or other tangible benefits for local people? How does the project monitor and act on adverse impacts on the community such as reduced access to timber? What power does the community have in decision-making? Community involvement is vital to project sustainability – carbon projects are often sited in developing nations where natural resource reliance is high, and if the needs of the community are not met the project risks alienating, disadvantaging or even displacing people, or failing altogether.

Carbon offsets are generally expected to be “permanent” to at least 100 years – that is, carbon that is stored should be locked away for at least a century. Of course, we cannot guarantee this; no one can truly say what will happen in 100 years’ time. ‘Permanence’, as it is known, is assessed on a number of factors including how the project addresses drivers of degradation and potential “exit strategies” for if and when the project comes to an end. Buyers should look for meaningful action by project developers to ensure that the stored carbon won’t be at risk as soon as the project ends. Does the project enhance environmental education? Are local people empowered to manage their local resources? Does the project address the core reasons for the loss of carbon, such as poverty that drives people to cut timber for firewood? While we cannot guarantee the future, actions such as these improve the chance that damaging activities won’t just return to normal at the end of the project.

Carbon is of course the core feature of an offset, but it doesn’t have to be the only one. Projects can deliver community development benefits such as funding education or providing water, enhancing biodiversity, or helping local people to develop more diverse livelihoods to ease the pressure on natural resources and provide jobs to local people.

We encourage buyers to explore projects Project Design Documents (or PDDs) – these should be available through the standard to which a project is certified and contain detailed information on how a project is structured and operates. Ask to speak to those in charge of the projects (at ACES, we are always happy to have a conversation with buyers and prospective buyers, whether you’re looking to buy 1 tonne or 1,000 tonnes). Developers should be transparent about their projects, including on how money is spent – some projects are worth paying a higher price for, but you should be confident that if you choose this option, your money is being spent well.

Critics of offsetting point to examples of bad practice in carbon trading projects as reason to avoid offsetting altogether. The carbon trading world is not immune to misguided or even malevolent practices that have resulted in miscarriages of justice for people or for the climate, and project developers and carbon standards should and do learn from these to prevent them from pervading in the industry. Carbon buyers should be aware of the diverse perspectives on offsetting, but also should be able to make informed decisions at a project level when considering offsetting so that they can support valuable projects that deliver not only carbon reductions, but broader benefits for people, wildlife and the environment.

Financing Blue Carbon Ethically, Responsibly and Effectively: Blog Series

Financing Blue Carbon Ethically, Responsibly and Effectively: Blog Series Featured

Financing Blue Carbon Ethically, Responsibly, and Effectively:
ACES Blog Series

In the last 10 years or so, mangrove forests have undergone a reputational shift that any PR agency would be proud of. Once dismissed as malaria-ridden swamps, mangroves are now recognised as the coastal superheroes that they really are. Seagrass meadows are also increasingly recognised for their environmental importance, and even saltmarshes – perhaps, unfortunately, less charismatic than their coastal cousins – are receiving attention for their carbon storage abilities. These three ecosystems together are the three main ‘blue carbon’ ecosystems[1], and their collective ability to contribute to the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change is huge in relation to their area.

This newfound fame is cause for celebration – we protect what we love, and blue carbon ecosystems deserve all of the love they can get. Mangrove, seagrass and saltmarsh scientists and conservationists who have been singing their praises for decades are now joined by a tidal wave of interest from people wanting to contribute to their protection and restoration. On the face of it, this is good news for blue carbon conservation, yet this excitement brings a risk that the quantity of support may come at the expense of quality of work that it funds.

Take, for example, planting mangrove trees. People love to see mangrove saplings being stuck in the ground, muddy hands and feet working hard to plant seedling after seedling, filling bare gaps along the coast with a future forest. Yet mangrove planting is notoriously fickle – one 2015 study suggests that only around 50% of mangrove planting efforts succeed to become established forests. Wave erosion, suffocation by sediment and grazing by goats are among the biggest threat to these newly planted trees, which often lack the protection of a surrounding forest which new seedings need to thrive. This challenge is not well-known outside of conservation and science, however, and funders keen to finance the planting of mangroves may end up throwing their money at efforts that may well fail.

Expectations of what blue carbon can deliver, in what timescale and with what budget must also be managed. Projects that are certified to sell carbon credits generated from mangrove planting and protection take time, energy, patience and resources to develop. For this reason, they are few and far between – fewer than 10 projects worldwide at the end of 2022 – creating a huge mismatch between supply and demand for ‘blue carbon credits’. Funders must recognise the need for upfront financing to get these projects off the ground, and allow for flexible, iterative approaches to project development that mean that the communities involved can be meaningfully consulted and involved, which may ultimately mean a deviation from the original proposal to the funders. This community engagement and involvement is crucial, however, both in the project development phase and throughout the lifespan of the work. Project developments must meaningfully engage with community aspirations, needs and perspectives to ensure social justice in the project interventions and benefits. Our first blog will present findings from research into perspectives of justice among the community of Vanga, home to our Vanga Blue Forest project. Through quotes from research participants, we will present the findings through the eyes of the community, highlighting the nuances of what social justice means to those most impacted by the projects.

Carbon credits may be a solution for some communities wanting to protect and restore mangrove forests, but it is not a solution that is suitable for all. The resources, skills and equipment needed to develop these projects is beyond the capacity of an average community group, meaning that there is almost certainly going to be a reliance on scientific and technical partners, which may well come at a cost. Nearby scientific facilities may ne needed for processing of samples and for scientific and technical support for project staff – something that is not always available in remote areas. For these and other reasons, significant stumbling blocks can lie between community groups and carbon certification. This challenge should be recognised and funders should consider the possibility of grant funding to unaccredited projects, rather than or in addition to buying carbon credits. This approach has been taken by Ocean Bottle, who have diverged from offsetting their carbon footprint to funding high-quality projects that fund the conservation and restoration of carbon sinks, including blue carbon ecosystems. Later in the year, Ocean Bottle’s blog will expand on their approach to financing blue carbon as part of their environmental and social responsibility as a marine-focused business. 

Whether funding comes from carbon credits, grant funding, philanthropy or other sources, the ethics of where the money comes from and what role it plays in the funder/buyer’s carbon reduction, CSR or philanthropic strategy is important. Funding blue carbon conservation shouldn’t be a distraction from taking steps to make systemic change or reducing carbon emissions or to cover up harmful or unethical practices elsewhere. It should be well-informed and researched, although donors do not always necessarily have the time, knowledge and capacity to carry out this research. For businesses, many sustainability consultants are available to provide this support, particularly regarding carbon reductions and offsets. In the philanthropic landscape, Impatience Earth provide pro-bono advice to philanthropic trusts who are interested in making donations to organisations to tackle the climate crisis. In April, we will publish a blog from Impatience Earth discussing their work, including what motivates philanthropists to find climate change work and what influences their decisions when directing this funding.

This recent ‘blue carbon boom’ provide great opportunities for the conservation of mangroves, seagrass, saltmarsh and other marine ecosystems, if directed appropriately and informed by the lessons learned from the protection and restoration of blue carbon habitats so far. Our upcoming blog series, with contributions from Ocean Bottle, Impatience Earth, the community of Vanga, and also researchers into the future of carbon financing, will address key topics and questions needed to help to direct this funding.

Our first blog, Voices from Vanga, will be posted on 28th February. If you would like to be signed up to our mailing list to receive this, drop us a line at [email protected].

[1] Sometimes, ‘blue carbon’ is used to refer to any carbon sequestered in the oceans – be it by mangroves, plankton, whales or even fish. Here, the term is used exclusively to mean mangroves, seagrass and saltmarsh ecosystems.

Ethical offsetting in the journey to a zero-carbon world

Ethical offsetting in the journey to a zero-carbon world

The ethics of carbon offsetting have become among the most contentious of any climate action strategy. Critics argue that the option to offset perpetuates unsustainable lifestyles and -facilitates greenwashing, giving carbon buyers a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to tackling their emissions; proponents argue that it can be used responsibly alongside reductions to reach net-zero.

Net zero, carbon neutral and other climate commitments are increasingly being made by businesses and governments. Achieving climate neutrality through emissions reductions alone is the ideal, yet at the same time challenging, if not impossible, without greater headway made towards a low-carbon global economy.  If net-zero targets are to be met, offsetting is, at least in the short term, essential.

Recent market data show that offsetting continues to grow. Voluntary offset sellers have reported sustained interest despite the Coronavirus pandemic, suggesting sustained commitments to sustainability strategies despite financial uncertainty. If the voluntary offset market is here to stay, then ethical standards must upheld not only within the projects themselves and the standard to which they are accredited, but in the way that carbon offsets are used by buyers.

The carbon market has been criticised on policy, scientific and moral grounds; the latter of which is often leveraged at buyers of carbon credits for using offsetting as an excuse to delay systematic change. Yet experiences of carbon credit providers – projects and resellers – in a ‘boutique’ segment of the voluntary carbon market is very different, instead finding that carbon buyers are overwhelmingly genuine in their commitments to sustainability, using offsets as only one part of their journey to net zero and engaging meaningfully with the moral dilemmas of choosing to buy offsets.

A research team from Edinburgh Napier University and ACES, the project coordinators for two Kenyan blue carbon projects, interviewed a range of stakeholders in the voluntary carbon market including carbon buyers, project developers, carbon standards and resellers of carbon credits, to explore how buyers use offsets alongside broader, long-term carbon reduction strategies. It was recognised that the views captured in the research are not necessarily representative of practices in the wider carbon market and the findings were not intended as such; rather, they were presented as an example of good practice in offsetting with lessons to be learned by project developers, carbon sellers and carbon standards.

Sincerity of buyers

The ‘permit to pollute’ criticism that offsetting simply perpetuates unsustainable lifestyles is often framed in the context of superfluous flights taken by people unwilling to change their lifestyle, or businesses that see offsets as a cheap way out of making changes to reduce their emissions. There was no evidence of this hazard among stakeholders interviewed; some even expressed guilt for activities such as driving to choir and said that being able to offset these emissions assuaged at least some of this guilt, particularly when the project that they chose to offset with delivered ‘charitable’ co-benefits such as community development or biodiversity enhancement.

Businesses need guidance

Our research found that carbon buyers took step to carry out their own due diligence on projects beyond accepting their certification at face-value. This included having conversations with offset sellers and even visiting projects personally. They did not, in general, appear to be looking for a certificate of offsetting as a CSR ‘badge’ or to tick a box – they were motivated to find high-quality offsets from projects that aligned with their interests and values. However, this due diligence took time, resources and a capability that cannot be expected of all buyers, particularly as the voluntary carbon market is fragmented between standards and projects with independently run, and variable, websites and communications. There is therefore a role for both sellers and third-party organisations to give buyers the clear and transparent information and guidance that they need to make informed decisions. An early example of this is the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting, which gives guidance on offsetting principles, and an upcoming platform by WWF to assess and evaluate carbon standards.

Onus on sellers

Finally, our research concluded that there is an onus on sellers of carbon offsets to ensure ethical practices are adhered to. Sellers can work with buyers to educate them on best practice in carbon reductions and net-zero strategies and to ensure that the offsets sold are being applied in an ethical manner and communicated accurately to reflect their role in the organisation’s net zero strategy.

Our research suggests that contrary to narratives presented by critics of offsetting, ‘ethical offsetting’ is practiced in at least parts of the voluntary carbon market and the principles from these examples can be applied throughout the market to ensure best practice. Our full research paper can be read here (written in 2021; unpublished).

The Sins of the Fathers – Offsets and Legacy Carbon

The Sins of the Fathers – Offsets and Legacy Carbon

 Mark Huxham and David Sumner (10min read)

Three metres was as far as we could go. Knee deep in viscous mud and dripping with sweat, we had pushed our core to its limit, like a teaspoon slipping into a vast black blancmange. We don’t know just how deep this organic-rich sediment underlying the mangrove forest goes; we do know it contains at least 1500 tonnes of carbon per hectare, 8 times more than a typical terrestrial tropical forest. These huge reserves of below ground carbon make mangroves one of the world’s most powerful natural carbon sinks. As these forests are destroyed – for shrimp farms, agriculture, industry, timber and palm oil – this trapped, water-logged carbon is oxidised and released. If they were all lost tomorrow, the resulting carbon belch could exceed total anthropogenic emissions for two years. So the future of the planet is now linked to the fate of natural carbon stores such as mangrove swamps, peatlands and tropical rainforests. Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change analysed what chances we had to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average; all their positive scenarios require the rapid conservation and enhancement of these sinks. Recent work by Bastin et al. has confirmed that restoring and enhancing natural sinks is one of the most effective responses we can make in the face of the climate emergency. We need to drastically reduce our carbon dioxide emissions (keeping fossil fuels safely buried) and at the same time preserve and expand forests, peatlands, marshes and seagrass meadows. 

Mangrove forests are natural marvels of evolution, brimming with astonishing adaptations and sublime beauties. They provide homes to wildlife and nursery grounds to fish, purify water and protect shorelines from erosion. But despite all these benefits their destruction continues, because short-term economic and political interests win out. However, there is now a way to convert one of these benefits into cash. By calculating the amount of carbon that the forests can absorb and store, and by designing projects that ensure this carbon continues to be sequestered, we can sell carbon credits on the voluntary carbon market. To commodify the forests for carbon may seem crass. But after 20 years working for mangrove preservation and failing to turn the tide on the relentless destruction of these forests, selling carbon credits to fund community-based conservation has finally provided a practical way to conserve them at the Kenyan sites where we work

 Offsets and credits 

 The title of this paper includes the term offsets but we will be also talking about carbon credits

A carbon credit is a generic term for any tradable certificate or permit representing one tonne of carbon dioxide or the equivalent amount of a different greenhouse gas. 

A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere; most people and organisations who purchase carbon credits do so in order to offset their emissions. 

Broadly speaking carbon offsets function in two ways: First, they help to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, for example by promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency. Second, they contribute to the improvement and enhancement of carbon sinks, for example through afforestation or the conservation of seagrass. Projects in the first category help to prevent potential emissions: if we replace a coal fired power station with an offshore wind farm, this makes a difference to carbon dioxide emissions in the future. Projects in the second category help to reduce the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere. But some projects do both at once. For example keeping a mangrove forest healthy will allow continued uptake of carbon, typically at the rate of between 2 -8 tonnes C ha-1 yr-1, and prevent the release of all the carbon currently stored in it. It is this latter function that has such important potential for the conservation of tropical forests. 

So if the activities of an individual give rise to 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, she could purchase carbon credits equivalent to those 10 tonnes. These would support, for example, a forestry scheme which would be a sink for that carbon dioxide. The cost of this carbon depends on the expenses of running the project; in most reputable schemes, these will include associated benefits for local people, for example improved education, livelihoods and wildlife conservation. 

Some examples 

If you take a return flight from London to Hong Kong this will result in the emission of about 4.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide. To offset these emissions you could contribute to a project that is enhancing carbon sinks. If the price of credits is, say, $10 a tonne, the donation must be at least $46. 

But flying may not be the best example. When these sorts of calculations are discussed, a common response is to say that ‘we shouldn’t be flying at all.’ Fair enough: most (about 75-80%) flying is done for tourism and no-one really needs to fly, although those of us who have close family in other countries may not agree. 

A better example is driving a car, where the ‘need’ is rather more nuanced. Those living in rural areas with little public transport are often genuinely dependent on a car. According to Mike Berners-Lee, driving a car from London to Glasgow and back (about 900 miles) would result in emissions of 0.33 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent for a small car and 1.1 tonnes for a large four-wheel drive. If we assume an intermediate figure of 0.5 tonnes per thousand miles, and an annual mileage of 10,000 miles, this gives a total of 5 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent per year, roughly the same as a return flight from London to Hong Kong. So for many individuals, driving a car will be a significant part of their carbon footprint. Whilst the use of ultra-low emission vehicles is growing, in Scotland (where we live), they only make up (as of December 2018) 0.4% of all vehicles licensed. What should we do? Pressure governments to move faster to de-carbonise our transport system? Of course. Move if possible to electric vehicles, public transport, walking and cycling. Absolutely. And for those carbon belching miles that we cannot (yet) avoid? Individuals can and should choose to offset. 

Objections and challenges 

One immediate objection is – ‘how do we know that the money we donate is going to be used to good effect’? Similar objections can be raised about any charitable donations (and indeed fraud and incompetence could be part of any transaction in a market economy). As Peter Singer argues in ‘A Life You Can Save’, such objections should be met with due diligence, rather than used as an excuse to do nothing – we can find out what donations are good value and what are not (and campaigns such as Effective Giving do just that). The carbon market supports a number of accrediting organisations with rigorous procedures required by the projects they endorse

But why bother with carbon offsets at all? We could simply encourage individuals to donate to accredited projects that improve carbon sinks. One of the advantages of carbon offsets is that they help make people fully aware of their own contributions to the climate crisis since they require the calculation of carbon footprints or at least of carbon emissions. As awareness of their own carbon footprints grows, people who purchase carbon credits will be less likely to believe that the purchase ‘permits’ further transgressions. Critics of offsetting have suggested the opposite – that people will purchase carbon credits as an alternative to changing their lives and campaigning for system change. That is theoretically possible but, like criticising giving to charity because the money may be misused, is a claim that should be tested against the facts. In our experience people who purchase carbon credits are those who are engaged with the politics of climate change and are wrestling with some of the difficult trade-offs; they are striving to both reduce their footprints and to offset what they cannot reduce. 


George Monbiot has compared the purchase of carbon credits to the sale of indulgences in the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the modern world indulgences have a bad reputation, largely because of the corrupt practices of the late medieval Church and papacy. A particularly noteworthy example is Pope Leo X, who raised money for the completion of St Peter’s basilica in Rome by the ‘usual late medieval method of raising funds, the issue of an indulgence‘. The abuse of indulgences was one of the main drivers of the Reformation. 

But the corruption of indulgences should not be allowed to obscure their original meaning, and indeed, their meaning for Catholics today. An indulgence is not the purchase of a pardon which automatically secures the buyer’s salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: 

The authorities of the Church have two aims in granting indulgences. The first is to help the faithful to expiate their sins. The second is to encourage them to do works of piety, penitence and charity, particularly those which lead to growth in faith and which help the common good. (emphasis added).

In other words, the recipient of an indulgence has to do something, such as acts of charity to others. It is a way of reducing the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins. 

In a secular world, it may seem inappropriate to use the term ‘sin’. But a term such as this is not a great distance from a recent statement by David Attenborough: ‘my generation has done terrible things’.14 David Wallace-Wells does not hesitate to use the word: ‘If they work, carbon capture plants will deliver industrial absolution for industrial sin – and initiate, as a result, a whole new theological romance with the power of the machine.’ 

So the ‘terrible things’ we have done – our excessive emissions of carbon dioxide – will be punished by extreme weather and high temperatures, and the purchase of carbon offsets will help to mitigate this punishment. And the sins of the fathers will be visited on the children16, since in order to avoid climate catastrophe we will need to keep on investing in, expanding and protecting natural carbon sinks well beyond our generation. This means offsetting in the future for legacy carbon that was produced in the past. In the UK we have around 1% of the world’s population but are responsible for more than 6% of all the anthropogenic carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere; climate justice demands we deal with this dirty legacy. Current projects that pioneer ways of investing in carbon sinks are laying the foundation for this. They are doing the science, training the foresters, recruiting the volunteers and building the institutions that will help ensure we have practical and just ways of conserving and expanding carbon sinks, using money that may in future come from governments atoning for their history of carbon profligacy. 

Why should individuals bother? 

It is sometimes argued that any contribution an individual can make to mitigate climate change is so small, it’s not really worth it – we need to concentrate on campaigning for political change. Yes, obviously political action is essential, although not all of us are suited to it; but surely individual actions are important too. These show authenticity and inspire others. Of course, we can’t do everything, but to do nothing is an abdication of our responsibility

In the words of Mike Berners-Lee: 

The UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen and elsewhere have surely taught us that it isn’t enough to hope that world leaders will sort things out on their own. So the question is: where does leadership come from? My answer is that it can come from anywhere and we need it to come from everywhere at once. If the Chinese middle class wants a Western lifestyle, then Western lifestyles had better become lower carbon. Who can start that off? Anyone can. Anyone who finds a way of enjoying life more for less carbon is setting a standard for others. Anyone who chooses a lower-carbon food is helping the supermarkets to emphasise that product. Any supermarket that improves and promotes its lower-carbon range is helping its customers to enjoy low-carbon food. All of this helps the political parties to move into a low-carbon position. If you can find a way of being happier but with a smaller footprint, you are a leader. 

Several thinkers (e.g. Dale Jamieson and Derek Parfit) have pointed out that the industrial revolution, and especially the exploitation of fossil fuels that drove it, has irrevocably changed the moral landscape. Through most of human history, people lived in small communities, in which the actions of one individual would only affect their immediate neighbours. With the advent of fossil fuels, everything we do has a global effect. Something as trivial as cutting the grass with a petrol mower results in additional carbon dioxide emissions. Although the consequences for an individual on the other side of the world may be imperceptibly small, this does not mean that the action is morally insignificant. In a globalised world, ethics has been globalised. Consider the example of a firing squad. There are ten men to fire the lethal bullets, rather than one, so that no individual feels the full weight of responsibility for the death. But most people would say each member of the squad does in fact share responsibility. Now imagine a ‘firing squad’ of ten thousand people – each one mowing their lawn, and all collectively sharing the responsibility for the death, from storm damage, heat stroke or starvation, that results. 

The practicalities of purchasing carbon offsets 

So how to go about purchasing carbon credits for carbon offsetting? The first question should be ‘can I avoid emitting this carbon in the first place?’ If the answer is no, then you should be able to calculate how much you are responsible for from the many free carbon calculators on-line. Be aware, however, that they will use different assumptions and may give different results (particularly if you are looking at the effects of flying). Avoid just choosing the smallest footprint you can find. Then consider a project that fits best with your concerns and that you can trust. For example our work with mangroves (called Mikoko Pamoja) is accredited by Plan Vivo, a charity that specialises in community-based forestry. Other schemes are the Verified Carbon Standard and the Gold Standard. There is no one price for a tonne of carbon dioxide – the amount you pay (typically £5-£12 per tonne) will depend on the project you support and some bring many additional benefits (so called ‘carbon plus’) as well as offsetting. 

Imagine the world thirty years from now. Our best hope is that temperatures are only 0.5 degrees above the present. We have eradicated carbon emissions from our economies and use only renewable sources of energy. Even in this best-case future, we still need to deal with the legacy carbon polluting our atmosphere for centuries to come. We already know how to do this; it is through the conservation and enhancement of the beautiful natural carbon sinks that enrich our world in so many ways. Carbon offsetting is not the destination, but it can be a positive step towards it.