Why we’re so over offsetting

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Carbon offsetting used to be the go-to option for businesses looking to showcase their climate credentials. However, as corporations’ sustainability attempts come under closer scrutiny, it’s clear that offsetting is no longer the Get Out of Jail Free card it once was. 

Offsetting originally gained traction when companies realised that it was near-impossible to reduce their emissions to zero. Corporate sustainability teams turned to carbon credits to solve this problem. By buying these permits, businesses can claim to be ‘carbon neutral’, masking the actual amount of carbon they are directly emitting. 

Surely they’re not that bad?

In fairness, carbon credits do serve a very important purpose. They are part of a cap-and-trade system that encourages high emitters to decarbonise. In essence, companies buy permits that give them the right to emit one ton of carbon dioxide. The money raised through the sale of these permits is used to sequester CO2 from the air. So the system does channel money towards climate change mitigation. 

Unfortunately, it also fosters an unhelpful mindset – one in which saving the planet is all about balancing the carbon books. This is not the case. 

Despite all of the offsetting going on around us, the situation is getting worse. 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. 

Why offsetting is not working

Firstly, it’s made everyone fixate on achieving carbon neutrality. This idea is helpful at a global level, where all of the nations of the world are working together to reach Net Zero, however isn’t as useful when it comes to individual companies.

Why? Because focusing all of their energy and money on calculating their footprints and then mitigating their individual impact isn’t effective or efficient in the grand scheme of things. Although it may be great PR to be ‘carbon neutral’, the marginal cost of an individual company’s actions to reduce their footprint is likely to be significantly higher than other carbon reduction activities. There is lower hanging fruit that could have a greater impact on overall emissions.

Secondly, the offsetting system disincentivises innovation. Large emitters do not have to change their business models provided they have enough capital to fund carbon credits. Big corporations are able to proudly argue they are doing the right thing without looking at more innovative ways of solving emissions challenges through more sustainable processes and practices.

It’s also not the most inspiring system, meaning that smaller businesses and individuals have been less inclined to get involved.

Finally, it encourages us to ‘be less bad’ but doesn’t push for us to ‘do more good’. The approach ring-fences responsibility and stops us working together to go above and beyond the bare minimum. And being less bad does not get us far enough. For most companies in the service industry, simply offsetting their carbon footprint is simply not going far enough because the environmental impact they have goes much further than their footprint.

Historical emissions have contributed a huge amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. We need to look beyond our own backyards and think about how we can leave the planet better than we found it. Going beyond our individual ‘quotas’ will give us a better chance of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.

What’s the alternative?

Instead of tallying our negative footprints, we should be focused on growing our positive handprints. We need to regenerate our planet.

Regenerative projects are a way of restoring, reserving and rewilding natural ecosystems to help improve the planet’s resilience to the changing climate. From planting trees to protecting at-risk ecosystems, regenerative actions can play a fundamental role in curbing climate change. 

A regenerative mindset incentivises action. It inspires us to be more creative with our solutions and look for new ways to help the world around us. Anyone can get involved as there are so many ways to regenerate and any positive action is adding to the work of others. 

A regenerative mindset can also inspire a host of innovative business ideas. From plantable stationery to algae-powered lighting, innovators are looking beyond the world of offsetting to find new ways of reducing global emissions and helping the planet heal. 

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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