The path towards a just sustainable future isn't straightforward. It seems as soon as we discover a way to clear half of the oceans plastic in the next five years, deforestation in the Amazon drastically increases. While the youth voice loudly calls for action , robust climate science is still being disputed by politicians.
However as UNFCCC’s Executive Secretary Espinosa urged global leaders, we must take advantage of all the opportunities currently available if we are to make progress: “People are demanding results—whether that’s online or in the streets—and we must show we are taking responsibility….We must deliver.
Teamwork on a global scale is required to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the environmental, economic and social impacts this enormous shift will undoubtedly create. Politicians may be at a deadlock - 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. The clock is ticking.
One of the most broadly implemented voluntary measures available to companies and individuals in order to act now is carbon offsetting. While buying carbon offsets should always be seen as a second step after reducing emissions first, it's a useful and needed tool in the toolbox! The term is often thrown about by politicians, but sometimes the details of what offsetting actually involves (and what it means for our climate) can be unclear.
What is Carbon Offsetting?
"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 compensated for or "offset" in the process.
Carbon offsetting also creates a range of opportunities and benefits beyond the environment. 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 heating up our planet.
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 market1. Standards normally include criteria for the type of project, the project’s impact on local communities, and the additional emission reductions it contributes to2.
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 Gold Standard for the Global Goals (GS4GG) is a label that projects can claim when they meet at least three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
For example, since launching in 2011, the Kariba project in Zimbabwe has protected nearly 785,000 hectares from deforestation and land degradation, preventing more than 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions being released into the atmosphere. 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 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 communities, and uses the money made from carbon credits to fund social and educational activities within local communities.
Offsetting for a culture of sustainability
In the aftermath of the Paris Agreement, the world is changing and public opinion is shifting. As governments set out to meet the Nationally Determined Contributions pledged in Paris, companies are beginning to understand pre-compliance as a savvy business move. The drive towards a low-carbon economy is speeding up, and the sooner we start embedding low-carbon measures in both our company ethos and our daily lives, the sooner the widespread 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, eating less meat, or choosing public transport are just a few of the hundreds 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.
By tuning in to our carbon footprint, reducing where we can and offsetting the emissions we can't with high-quality emission reduction projects we can spark deep transformation from the bottom up. A rapid shift in the status quo is needed; let's embrace a culture of sustainability and work urgently on solving the climate crisis from all angles using all methods to ensure a just future for all.
The clock is ticking, act now.
 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 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.
About the author
South Pole is a leading global sustainability solutions provider. If you would like to find out more about our climate solutions, visit our website.