Carbon offsets: Tree-planting window dressing, or a viable net zero solution?


In order to facilitate the energy transition, multiple solutions will need to act in tandem. Michael Nelson investigates the role that carbon offsetting has to play, and whether concerns over ‘greenwashing’ are substantiated.

“This is greenwashing,” interrupted Greta Thunberg and Greenpeace’s Jennifer Morgan at COP26’s panel on carbon offsetting, before challenging representatives from BP, Shell, and many of the biggest financial institutions present at the panel.

According to Greenpeace, carbon offsetting is “tree planting window dressing, aimed at distracting from ecosystem destruction”. But, with a sophisticated set of certifications across multiple authorities, internationally recognised systems of carbon footprint calculation, and now recognition at the world’s premier conference on climate change action, what is the truth of the matter?

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsets are a method which companies and individuals use to compensate for their emissions by funding an equivalent carbon dioxide saving elsewhere. With everyday actions consuming energy and producing carbon emissions, such as driving, flying, and heating buildings, carbon offsetting can be used to balance out these emissions.

Offsetting can be achieved in a variety of ways, such as supporting the construction of renewable energy projects to replace fossil fuel-fired power plants, increasing energy efficiency by funding insulation projects and using more-efficient vehicles for transportation, or via carbon sequestration in soils and forests created by tree-planting.

Naturally, many of the biggest purchasers for carbon offsetting projects are industries which have yet to fully mobilise their efforts to reduce and eliminate emissions. Transport and logistics are two of the largest sectors, but digital tech companies such as Google and Amazon also spend huge amounts of money to overset their carbon footprint.

Climate activists, however, say that offsetting gives a false impression that there is a way out of the crisis without every government and business cutting their own emissions, which leads to delaying or dampening ambition to do the real work.

The net zero pledges that drive the carbon offset market, they argue, assume that there are no limits to compensate one’s own emissions with reductions or increased carbon removal elsewhere, and ignore the fact that plants need time to grow, despite the fact that cutting fossil fuel emissions offers immediate results.

Nature-based carbon offset solutions

EcoAct, an Atos company, are an accredited climate finance specialist and offsetting project developer. They say that, with the urgent global goal of net zero, offsetting is helping many businesses and organisations to achieve their carbon neutral goals whilst they continue to reduce their emissions.

Mathilde Mignot, head of portfolio and partnerships for nature-based solutions at EcoAct, says that the amount of money that is spent on carbon offset schemes has increased dramatically over the last few years, for a number of reasons.

“First, because companies are getting the budget to invest. Net zero is becoming a topic which is at the heart of many businesses core principles, and it is not only the big tech companies like Google and Microsoft which are acting to clean up their activities. They are putting a lot more money in to trying to achieve their ambitious climate goals.

“Then, there may be a lot of projects, but there also a lot of demand. It is a case of trying to manage these demands, and putting more value on ecosystems as the market increases in order to help save them.”

Studies certainly support this. A report published in June 2021 presents an analysis of the future demand and supply for voluntary carbon credits, which was conducted by Trove Research and University College London, and shows a rapid increase in the market, doubling over the last three to four years to 95 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2020. All credit types have become more popular, but especially nature-based solutions, such as the ones offered by EcoAct.

“Because of the objectives set out by the Paris Agreement, we decided to focus on nature-based solutions on a national level within France, but also at an international level,” explains Mignot.

“So, for example, we are investing in the 1000-hectare programme in Myanmar to restore mangrove forests, while also continuing the great work we do in promoting the use of efficient, low smoke LPG cookstoves in places like Sudan, boosting the carbon sequestration of soils, and improving access to water.”

Working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

Many of the countries in which carbon offset programmes take place also struggle to attract public investment. Private investment through carbon offset funding is seen as a key way to develop areas of the world which would otherwise get left behind.

In this way, EcoAct’s carbon offset programmes are aligned to work towards the UN’s Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted in 2015 and provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which, they say, are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing. It is a global partnership that recognises that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth, while tackling climate change and working to preserve the world’s oceans and forests.

EcoAct’s Sudan cookstove project, based in the Darfur region, was the first registered carbon credit project in Sudan, and the first to be developed in a conflict zone. It was a developed to improve household health by replacing traditional cooking methods, mainly burning wood and charcoal inside the home, with low smoke LPG stoves.

According to their webpage, 26.1 million people in Sudan do not have access to clean cooking are reliant on biomass for cooking fuel. In addition, burning wood releases large amounts of particulates, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants. Traditionally, women cook on open fires inside their homes, and consequently, health issues related to indoor air pollution in Sudan kill more people than Malaria, Tuberculosis, and HIV combined.

This carbon offsetting project, therefore, achieves a number of the UN’s SDGs. Firstly, it helps ensure healthy lives and promote well-being by enabling better air quality, which reduces respiratory diseases; achieves gender equality and empowerment for women and girls, who say they spend less time collecting wood and have found employment opportunities through the project; and ensures access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy.

Most importantly, it presents a legitimate investment to combat climate change. LPG has lower greenhouse gas emissions than other fossil fuels, with 50 per cent fewer carbon emissions than coal, and 20 per cent less than heating oil. So far, EcoAct says that the project has saved more than 232,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

For Mignot, who moved from business development to overseeing EcoAct’s carbon offset portfolio, helping disadvantaged communities with the work they do is a source of immense pride.

“After visiting some of the projects in the field, I felt I was more connected to the process, helping make sure that client’s money is well placed. We can guarantee our clients that what we offer are good projects that help people and the planet, and we are very proud of that.”

Ensuring the legitimacy of purchased offsets

Concerns over the practice persist, however. Last year, an investigation by Bloomberg Green revealed that The Nature Conservancy and GreenTrees, two companies who provide carbon offsets to the market, either generate money to preserve forests that are not in danger of being harvested, or take credit for planting trees that already exist.

A robust set of standards and measurements is needed, then, in order to confirm the validity of offset purchases.

Atos, and subsequently EcoAct, are the only French company that is associated with the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance (ICROA), an organisation which, through its Code of Best Practice, aims to define international best practice for offset-inclusive carbon management.

ICROA accredited organisations commit to performing carbon measurement in accordance with international standards such as the WRI/WBCSD greenhouse gas protocols and ISO 14064, use credible carbon credits in accordance with those standards, encourage clients to set challenging targets that go beyond business-as-usual, and use third-party registries and retire or remove carbon credits used for offsetting.

“Sometimes it is easy to just buy up credits because they are available,” surmises Mignot. “But it goes against the best practice principles that are set out by ICROA. It is not enough to just plant some trees and leave it at that. Where is the methodology? How can the offset be proven? Are there any checks to ensure that those trees are still there?

“For us, it is a long-term strategy and commitment, and by adhering to the best practice standards set out by ICROA, gaining accreditation from them, and regularly auditing investment projects, it gives our clients a guarantee that they are putting their investments in a good place.”

A useful tool to compliment other emissions reduction solutions

While it is clear that carbon offsetting cannot be the sole solution to the climate crisis without businesses and governments taking responsibility to reduce CO2 emissions as much as possible, it can, however, play a part in mitigating for the remaining unavoidable emissions that cannot be cut from industrial processes.

And Mignot’s response to those who would accuse EcoAct of ‘greenwashing’?

“Come and visit our projects, and you will see how we utilise the money we raise through carbon offset schemes to provide nature-based solutions to climate change, in places like Cambodia and Myanmar. This not only benefits the planet long-term, but it is also an investment in communities which would otherwise struggle to attract funding through NGO’s or other means.

“The important thing is that we work in adherence to a set of accountability standards to ensure the quality of the actions we take. It is the only way to show how serious we are about being a part of the solution to the climate crisis.”

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