When our staff-led Green Team started looking into carbon offsetting in 2019 we were sceptical, to say the least. Google searches of ‘carbon offsetting effectiveness’ returned articles such as ‘are carbon offsets a con?’ and risks of greenwashing and flaws in offset execution haunted us.
Being aware that our international development-focused company could not cut out carbon intensive flying completely, we focused on finding an offsetting partner aligned with our values, targets and ethos to help us achieve our goal of carbon neutrality by 2021.
We found Earthly; a company with a plan to battle greenwashing and make the offsetting market more ethical and accountable. Earthly focuses on ‘carbon removal’ to create a carbon positive impact, helping people and companies understand and reduce their carbon footprint while investing in nature-based climate solutions for unavoidable emissions.
Carbon offsetting and greenwashing: why don’t these schemes work?
The basic premise of carbon offsetting is a company sets up a project that sequesters more carbon than it produces. The additional sequestration is then split up into ‘credits’ and sold to individuals or companies to balance out their carbon-intensive activity.
So how are these schemes greenwashing? In most cases, it is due to uncertainty around the amount, and method, of carbon removal; the credibility of the removal calculations; and the effectiveness of project spend to outcome.
As a result of these uncertainties, several key questions should be asked of carbon offsetting schemes:
- Would that activity have gone ahead anyway? Purchasing credits from pre-planned activities, such as a farmer who was already planting trees for shade, means in effect no additional carbon is sequestered.
- Is the project removing as much carbon as it says it does? Some companies resell the same carbon credits to multiple customers. Less nefariously, unverified calculating methods may not accurately show the amount of carbon removed.
- Are the emissions removed permanently? If you’ve bought carbon credits for a tree planting project and in three years those trees have burnt in wildfires, the stored carbon has now been released. Does this still count?
- Does the project shift the emission elsewhere? A project protecting one specific area of forest doesn’t address the drivers of its deforestation and may even result in a different area being felled that wasn’t due to be touched.
- How much money invested in offsetting is going into interventions? A report from the BBC found that in some cases only 30% of the money spent on carbon offsets is spent on carbon removal incentives, while large amounts of money go into taxes, or directly into the offsetting companies pocket.
- How is the carbon being removed? Some companies use the burning of methane as part of their offsetting packages, releasing carbon dioxide in the process. However, because methane has a higher global warming potential, it can be seen as beneficial. The carbon dioxide it creates is seen as less harmful for the environment and thus can be regarded as an offset.
- Are offsets letting companies avoid addressing carbon intensive activities in the first place? Offsetting can be seen as a get out of jail free card, allowing investors to carry on business as usual rather than reducing their carbon intensive activities – in effect, treating the symptom and not the cause.
- Are low-income countries and communities being burdened by project activities? All projects should consider their impact on the local community. Reforesting an area of land may be taking farmland away from a community that relies on it for survival.
Many of these questions aren’t easily answered; how could you possibly know if trees are going to burn down in the future or if a farmer would have planted them anyway? The uncertainties and unreliability of offsetting projects are what makes finding the right partner so difficult.
Earthly, a nature-based solution?
Earthly doesn’t use traditional carbon credits, such as renewable energy projects, but instead prefers Nature-Based Solutions alongside advising investors of internal changes to reduce their carbon footprint.
Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) were first defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2016 as ‘actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.
NBS use multiple strategies, avoid monoculture plantations and, most importantly, must have full consent and engagement of indigenous communities who will be involved throughout the life of the project. Naturally generated and protected projects take time to yield carbon credits and are vulnerable to threats like forest fires, impacting promised carbon reduction. Working with local communities helps ensure the longevity of the project against natural threats and help assure greater success.
We found our concerns about traditional carbon offsetting quelled in Earthly’s Vision; a sustainable and ethical approach to the fight against climate change.
After linking up with Earthly, we are due to balance our (few) 2021 flights and are looking at how Earthly can help reconcile our unavoidable office emissions to reach our goal of carbon neutrality by 2022.
Through a company vote, we have decided to invest our credits into the Earthly Bundle – focusing our credits on three projects. These are;
- Brazil Nut Concessions: A REDD+ project focusing on rainforest conservation in the heart of Peru. Run by Earthly partner Bosques Amazonicos SAC (BAM). This project aims to reduce deforestation in over 300,000 hectares of the Peruvian Amazon and reduce millions of tonnes of CO2 from illegal deforestation.
- Mangrove Planting in Madagascar: Run by Eden Reforestation Projects focusing on reforestation and poverty alleviation. Mangroves pack some punch when it comes to carbon sequestration but also provide other natural benefits such as storm surge protection and wildlife habitats. The project has already planted over 300 million trees and created over 3 million workdays for local communities since it started in 2007.
- Mai Ndombe Rainforest Protection: This REDD+ project in the Congo basin (DRC) is working on protecting the world’s second-largest intact rainforest as well as helping local communities through education and providing vital medical care.
Our choice in projects stemmed from wanting to support change in communities and places Itad works frequently and projects we believe are having the most impact for sustainable carbon reduction.
We have a long way to go to reach our carbon goals, let alone answering all our ethical questions, but the offsetting world feels a little less murky when you have a trusted partner by your side.
To find out more about our green team and their work, contact email@example.com