For years, countries and corporations have used carbon offsetting as a way to showcase how they are acting on climate change. But at the recent Youth4Climate summit, Greta Thunberg accused leaders of engaging in ‘creative carbon accounting’ that was not prioritising the planet. So how exactly does offsetting work, and is the global fixation on footprints actually having an impact on emissions?
In Kyoto in 1997, the world’s nations agreed that we needed to do something about rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Countries created a framework to split responsibility based on their footprints, and defined the level of action required by each to reach a goal of global carbon neutrality.
At the same time, another complementary idea was gaining traction. ‘Carbon credits’: a cap-and-trade system that would create mechanisms to encourage nations and high-emitting industries to decarbonise. In essence, companies buy permits that give them the right to emit one ton of carbon dioxide. Then, the money raised through the sale of these permits is used to sequester CO2 from the air.
Can businesses be carbon neutral too?
Although it was designed for nations, the world of corporate sustainability enthusiastically adopted the concept of carbon neutrality in the 1990s. It was a neat way of compartmentalising their negative impact. And it gave them something to show for how they were supposedly combating it. Not much has changed since.
Companies typically use a three-step process to achieve neutrality. They measure their footprints, reduce them where possible, then use carbon credits to offset what they can’t reduce. Within this framework, a business can become carbon neutral every year by immediately cancelling out (or offsetting) its emissions with carbon credits. It’s an easy yet effective way of showing consumers that—on paper—they’re not negatively impacting the planet. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple…
1. You can’t compartmentalise neutrality
Imagine sharing a house with a group of friends. You may be a neat-freak. You wash your dishes every day and tidy up after yourself. But if you live with messy people, your place will always be a tip. Now, imagine that house is Planet Earth. Making sure you’re putting your carbon back in the cupboard is not going to change the status quo. You’ll still be surrounded by the stuff.
In the same way, companies cannot and should not aim to be islands of carbon neutrality. It just doesn’t work like that. Focusing all of their energy and money on balancing their individual carbon balance sheet isn’t effective or efficient, in the grand scheme of things. Instead, businesses can contribute toward global carbon neutrality through collaboration. Working with other companies, communities, and countries. Businesses should be focusing on channelling investment to where it can have the biggest impact.
2. The system disincentivises action
Carbon credits and offsetting remove the incentive for real climate action. Simply put, it means that businesses with enough cash are able to offset their huge footprints through carbon credits. They can wash their hands clean of the problem, without looking at more innovative ways of solving emissions challenges, through more sustainable processes and practices.
The system has shifted the focus from the original aim of reducing emissions to one of offsetting. This is business as usual. Which means companies are still burning fossil fuels, and carbon dioxide levels are still building up in the atmosphere. While we’re running out of time…
3. It’s created a ‘break-even’ mindset
Companies are encouraged to mitigate their negative impact through offsetting. But they have no incentive to do more good. The approach ring-fences responsibility, and stops us from working together to go above and beyond the bare minimum.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of carbon dioxide out there that no one wants to take responsibility for. Historical emissions have contributed a huge amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In addition, not all businesses and countries today are taking action to counter their emissions. If we want a fighting chance at slowing climate change? We need to go above and beyond our quota, and extract more than we emit.
What’s the alternative?
Despite all of the offsetting going on around us, we haven’t managed to move the needle on climate change. A recent report by the UN showed that global emissions are in fact expected to rise by 16% by 2030. It’s clear that the system is not creating the change needed. We need to drastically rethink our approach. So instead of focusing on ‘being less bad’, how about looking at how we can ‘do more good’?
Regenerative projects are just that. They’re ways to restore, reserve and rewild natural ecosystems, to help improve the planet’s resilience to the changing climate. By shifting the focus away from negative footprints towards positive handprints, we can start thinking about how we leave the world a better place. From planting trees to protecting at-risk ecosystems, regenerative actions can play a fundamental role in curbing climate change.
Crucially, regeneration doesn’t have to stop once a company reaches its carbon neutrality targets. Handprint is enabling businesses to embed regeneration into their operations and track their positive impact over time. Ecommerce stores can opt to plant a tree for every new customer or pull plastic from the ocean with every purchase. By building regenerative practices into everyday processes, businesses can work with their customers to do good.
Interested in learning more about planet-positive action? To find out how you or your company can help the planet stay within the 1.5 degrees temperature increase through regenerating natural ecosystems, try out Handprint’s Regenerative Target Calculator.
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