Flying CO2 neutral: What does that actually mean? And why is the system still an object of fierce debate?
In many ways, it was just another chapter in a royal soap opera. Last July, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex talked in grave terms about the climate crisis. “With nearly 7.7 billion people inhabiting this Earth, every choice, every footprint, every action makes a difference," Harry wrote in an Instagram post. A month later, the couple took a private jet to the South of France for a holiday.
Newspapers called the couple out for their apparent hypocrisy. Their journey was estimated to have emitted seven times more carbon per person than a commercial flight. But – wait – it wasn’t so simple, we were told. Sir Elton John, who had hosted the couple at his mansion near Nice, pointed out that he had not only paid for the flight but had also paid to offset its carbon emissions.
The row quickly fuelled an already fierce debate. Countries, companies and consumers all over the world are racing to meet emissions targets that look increasingly out of reach. Is the practise of throwing money at mitigating projects a vital weapon in the war on climate change – or a fig leaf for individuals and corporate emitters to avoid investing in more meaningful change?
Carbon offsetting has been around since the late 1990s, but entered a new gear in 2005. The Kyoto Protocol, an international climate change treaty, prompted a push to standardise a fledgling market that was worth 790 million US dollars by 2008.
In simple terms, it worked like this: climate-friendly projects, mostly in the developing world, would sell credits, via consultants and brokers, to buyers looking to balance their emissions, be they individuals on jets, big companies with carbon-spewing factories - or entire nations looking for a quicker way to lighten their environmental footprint. Independent bodies would assess and certify projects.
The 2008 crash then all but destroyed progress. Where projects did grow, a series of failures and holes in regulation threatened to erode the principle itself. Trees have been planted in unsustainable places, ignoring the needs of communities or land. In some cases, palm oil plantations have been counted as “reforestation” despite the fact they are designed to be cut down again years later, and have their own negative environmental impact. Carbon credits, meanwhile, have turned out to be largely worthless in the darker parts of the market.
Even where projects were effective in balancing emissions, either by increasing carbon sequestration with sustainable reforestation, or by reducing emissions (for example, by distributing energy-efficient cookstoves in developing nations), the underlying criticism still simmered. Offsetting “is not a silver bullet, and the danger is that it can lead to complacency”, UN Environment climate specialist Niklas Hagelberg said last year.
It is perhaps not surprising that, at a consumer level, support for offsetting flight emissions – the most conspicuous example of the principle of carbon offsetting – has been low, even if Elton John appears to be a fan. The International Air Transport Association has said that just 1% of airline passengers voluntarily offset their emissions. Airlines do offer offsetting but it is rarely a prominent stage in the booking process.
But in the last couple of years, carbon offsetting has entered a new era as corporations invest record sums in credits and governments seek to bolster regulation and participation. As emissions targets loom, a new, increasingly mature offsetting market is being seen even by critics as a vital tool, albeit one to be wielded with caution and without complacency.
Despite its reservations, the UN supports offsets as a temporary measure. The United Nations Environment Programme itself says it has been carbon neutral since 2008 thanks, in part, to the purchase of carbon credits, while it has also reduced its emissions in the first place by 35 per cent over the same period.
Corporate buyers of credits have doubled down. Perhaps most notably, they include oil companies. Shell has pumped 300 million US dollars (270 million euros) into forest plantations to reduce its carbon footprint by 2-3 percent, while France's Total has announced a new unit to spend 100 million US dollars a year on offsetting.
In Britain, the government announced last year that it is collecting evidence for better ways to reduce the impact of travel on the environment - with a focus on carbon offsetting. One idea is to compel ticket sellers, including airlines, to include the option to offset carbon during the booking process by checking a box. Ministers are also considering an opt-out model.
Airlines are also starting to offset beyond a required minimum; last year Easyjet said it would buy 7.5m tonnes of carbon dioxide to cover one year’s worth of flights (this was before Covid-19 grounded aviation). It struck the deal with EcoAct, a rapidly expanding Paris environment consultancy whose carbon credit clients also include Telefonica and Coca-Cola.
One of EcoAct’s projects is an example in how good offsetting can have broader, societal benefits; the 60,000 efficient cookstoves it has distributed in one region in Kenya require 60% less firewood. This means less tree cutting, less time devoted to wood collection, more employment (the stoves are made locally) and cleaner air inside homes.
Standards for certifying carbon projects are much higher than during the first offset boom, proponents of modern offsetting say. But the credit system remains a vexed topic among environmentalists, particularly at the national level. At the annual United Nations climate change conference in Madrid last December, delegates failed to reach agreement on improved regulation for carbon markets, in which countries can offset national emissions as a way to meet targets.
The coronavirus pandemic has only complicated the picture further, taking air out of the new boom. Airlines have lobbied to ease carbon offsetting and reduction requirements they had previously agreed to. Environmentalists fear that the short-term benefit of drastically reduced aviation during lockdown and the time of closed borders may fade if airlines are allowed to roll back their emissions obligations once the skies fill up again.
It will take some time for the newly revived offsetting industry to emerge from a global crisis. In the long term, the momentum it has gained in responding to an arguably much bigger threat may well be irresistible. For consumers in the meantime, be they princes or regular holidaymakers, the choice to offset their personal emissions may remain their own for some time to come.
LGT has been offsetting its annual greenhouse gas emissions since 2010 with a wind power project in Rajasthan, India. Fifteen wind turbines with a capacity of 1.5 MW each have been installed there. Around 55'000 people are thus receiving clean energy and reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. The project will also create new local employment opportunities that will help to combat poverty in the region. By offsetting its unavoidable emissions, LGT can help less privileged people and have a positive social and environmental impact. For LGT, offsetting is therefore not a sale of indulgences, but one of many urgent necessities in the fight against climate change.