What’s going on here?
Many large companies, including airlines and energy companies – notoriously big emitters – claim to be carbon neutral. They do so by purchasing carbon offsets: paying to reduce carbon somewhere else to compensate for their own emissions. But a new report by Bloomberg Green uncovers that these offsets are mostly low quality, and potentially useless.
What does this mean?
Offset schemes claim to work by using the funds they raise to remove carbon from the atmosphere or stop high-emitting activities. For example, a company may pay to plant trees or to protect existing forests.
Many of the offsets bought by large companies fund renewable energy projects. The idea is to prevent carbon emissions by stopping new fossil fuel projects going ahead. While this sounds like a good thing, renewable energy is already cheap, so investment from offset schemes is often not actually required. Offset schemes that support renewable projects therefore aren’t preventing new coal power plants, as the renewable projects would be going ahead anyway.
Why should we care?
When companies invest in cheap offsets based on renewable energy it means they aren’t investing in genuinely effective offsets that remove carbon from the atmosphere.
There are also concerns that carbon offsets are simply an act of greenwashing – claims that allow polluting companies to continue emitting carbon while greening their image. A 2015 study showed that greenwashing does deceive consumers about brands’ alleged sustainability. Misleading information about carbon offsets may prevent people making genuinely green choices. Most worryingly, it means high-polluting industries such as airlines can say they’re carbon neutral without reducing their emissions at all.
Be sceptical: Think twice if you see a carbon-neutral claim that seems too good to be true. Is the company actually reducing their emissions, or might they be buying offsets?