Offsetting. What, exactly, is it?

Posted on 29.12.22

The whole “offsetting thing” may have passed you by completely over the last 15 years. Or maybe you’ve just clocked it. Or maybe it’s the only thing anyone in your team, department, or organisation, is talking about.

We’re at one of those “critical transition” points in our history where everything is changing: which means all those three things can be true. At once.

So don’t despair. Some people are just peering through their fingers; some are neck deep.

And some are very, very confused.

So: offsetting is when you do something else to compensate (in this context) for your emissions. It’s meant to be for after you have reduced as far as you possibly can. And then using offsetting to make up for the rest. So you can reduce your carbon emissions from travel by not driving, and using a bicycle instead (excellent reduction in emissions acheived!); but want to know how to reduce it even further, ie compensate for the energy used, and emissions created, in making a bicycle. So you might decide to look into how much energy is used in making a bike; and then looking up how many trees you can plant, or even pay someone else to plant, to “sequester” (ie grab) the carbon in the atmosphere equivalent to the carbon emitted by the bicycle manufacturer in making your bike.

Fair enough. As long as you’re not buying a very fancy schmancy bike with bells and whistles you don’t need, AND you think very carefullly about which trees you are planting, and where (are they going to just get cut down? Are they the best tree for that land? And are you causing harm without realising it?) you probably can’t reduce your emissions MUCH further, and so offsetting the bike seems reasonable if you do so in a careful way.

What is NOT reasonable is thinking you can buy an extra car to your existing car, and then ask someone else to plant some trees to make you feel better. For example. Or flying on holiday the same amount as every year but paying someone else to take the carbon hit, in the same way. Or expanding your carbon heavy business, or house, or life; building a spaceport, or investing in a fossil fuel company, and thinking it’s ok “because I’ll just offset it”.

There are three massive reasons for this.

1: The Maths. We need to reduce. Monumentally. (Think bike v car and then apply it to the world. We need to reduce by 50% by 2050 globally to have an evens chance of not surpassing 1.5 degrees hotter than we should be. So that’s a LOT of people swapping bikes for cars. We got work to do).  So all the extra bling we have not yet bought/built/drooled over: we can’t have it. It’s actually as simple as that. And we need to reduce what we have. Using offsetting as an excuse to carry on as usual is as far from cutting the mustard as saying you like carrots when you have agreed that you need to eat five a day to stay healthy. Or getting your mate to not have a pint so you can have another one. The same amount of pints are being had. Y’know. So that’s NOT ok. Or useful.

2: The Mendacity. Because we’re not really getting our heads round “1”, we veer straight into “2”. We’re cheating, and cheating by harming others. At the moment, we know families are being turfed off their lands, and farms, which they depend on to feed themselves and make their living, but Western companies who want to continue with the bling of Business As Usual – but ease their carbon conscience by planting trees. On land that doesn’t belong to them, and is now unavailable to feed the people who DO own it. I’m not really seeing the benefit, here. You know? That’s just companies having their cake and eating it.

‘How are we going to live?’ Families dispossessed of their land to make way for Total’s Congo offsetting project

Local farmers say they can no longer afford to send children to school after the oil giant’s 40,000 hectare tree plantation barred them from their fields

Carrying on as normal, thinking their meagre tree planting has justified it (not even close in just carbon terms) and creating more injustice and hunger by nicking someone else’s life to do it. Also NOT ok. Really, really, NOT ok. But it is happening.

3: The Morality. The world is run on jaw-droppingly asymmetries of power. Those how have, have more. Those who do not, get less. Offsetting does a most splendid job of enabling those who have the money to pay can carry on poisoning. Not that different from those who money being able to buy organs from people who have no choice but to sell. You get the point?

So – have a look at some takes on it below.

Flying offsetting – not ok.

Shell driving offsetting – not ok.

Greenpeace’s take on offsetting. (Spoiler alert: it’s not ok.)

There is loads online about this. Essentially:

And if you want to persuade a mate: show them this. At the very least, it’ll make you laugh out loud. And remember the baffled guy who clocks it:

“This isn’t balancing anything out. It’s two different things. The only place it’s connected… is in our heads!”