Do you know that check box you can tick
when booking a flight, or ordering a package –
that promises you can offset all of the carbon
that you just emitted, and you’re good?
Have you ever wondered whether that’s actually legit?
And we’re not the only ones who can
apparently buy our way out.
Some of the world’s largest companies are relying
heavily on carbon offsets to reach their ambitious climate pledges.
Apple is going carbon neutral.
That’s why, at Shell, our ambition is to be a net-zero
emissions energy business by 2050.
Even fossil fuel companies are vowing to emit
net zero carbon soon –
in large part thanks to carbon offsets.
How the hell is that supposed to work –
and are carbon offsets in general to be trusted?
And why am I stuck in the mud in the middle
of nowhere to answer that?
Hi I’m Kiyo Dörrer, and you're seeing climate action...
I know carbon offsets don’t sound that sexy,
but they are kind of a hot topic right now.
So the basic idea of an offset is that
if you’re naughty and emit a lot of carbon,
you can pay to have those emissions reduced somewhere else.
The logic is that since the emitted CO2 goes into the atmosphere and
damages the entire planet,
you can cancel it out anywhere –
preferably somewhere where it’s easier
and cheaper to do so.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Probably the first thing that comes to mind
when you think offsets are trees –
planting them or protecting them
from being cut down.
Trees of course sequester carbon,
making them a very popular offset.
Or you could pay projects to install renewable energy
– like wind, solar or biogas.
Then we get to the nichey stuff:
Capturing the excess methane
that seeps out from landfills or open coal mines.
Effective, since methane is about 25 times
more potent than CO2.
Or you can have even worse greenhouse gases
destroyed or avoided, like laughing gas,
which is about 300 times worse than CO2.
So I wanted to know exactly where my money
goes to when I compensate my own private carbon footprint.
Let’s say I’m flying from Berlin to Tokyo.
Please don’t shoot me,
I’m visiting my family.
So there is a box here where I can say offset CO2 emissions.
That says supports ten international projects for a global impact.
But I want to know which, and I want to know where.
[The] majority of projects are in the Global South, but there are a few in Europe.
So two of the projects are in Germany actually, and both are not that far away.
Let’s go there!
Hi, I’m Kiyo!
I’m Karen. Welcome to Königsmoor!
Karen Marggraf sells carbon offsets for a
non-profit in Germany’s northernmost state.
So my question is: what happens to my money?
It's supposed to reduce my CO2 emissions – how does that work here?
All this area was drained to make way for agriculture.
And drained wetland is a bit like a carbon factory.
That’s because the organic matter in wetlands
called peat stores a lot of carbon over oftentimes thousands of years.
But when the peatland gets drained and dries out,
the carbon comes in contact with the oxygen
on the surface and emits CO2.
A mind-boggling amount of it actually.
About five percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions come from damaged peatlands.
That’s more than twice the greenhouse gases emitted by aviation globally.
To reverse that, this project is aiming to rewet this landscape.
The peat layer is being removed,
and dams are being built with it
to contain rainwater within the area.
So you’re building a pool?
A basin, a pool, that’s right.
Around the corner there is a dam that was
completed half a year ago.
We’re standing on one of the dams.
Now that we’ve managed to raise the water level, the rainwater is kept in by the dams
and the carbon can’t escape.
Once the wetland is intact again and vegetation grows back,
additional carbon will be captured from the atmosphere.
The rule of thumb is:
every hectare absorbs about ten tons [of CO2] per year.
To put that into perspective: A flight back and forth
from Germany to Japan alone emits about three tons of CO2.
So you really need a lot of wetland to compensate emissions.
And this is what that water basin turns into after a few years.
The land is being reclaimed by nature.
These moor offsets are voluntary offsets.
Meaning that anybody can buy them voluntarily –
if for example they want to reduce their flight shame
like I do.
And companies can also buy them – to offset their millions of tons of emissions.
But there are also mandatory offsets.
Mandatory offsets are offsets that companies have to buy to stay under
the maximum amount of carbon they are allowed to emit per year.
This mechanism was set in place by the Kyoto protocol and updated in the Paris agreement.
The mandatory market used to make up the lion’s share of offsets, but that’s changing rapidly.
You can imagine why when we rewind to those carbon neutrality promises.
Last time I checked, you can’t produce cars,
or deliver goods, or pump oil out of the ground
– without emitting CO2.
So to get to Net Zero, you need some of that
sweet bookkeeping magic.
The voluntary market has been growing rapidly
in the past years.
And 2021 is likely to set a new record.
Renewable energy as well as forestry and land
use projects are currently
by far the most popular offsets.
There's just one small problem:
Many of the carbon offsets just don’t offset carbon.
There's lot of dirty tricks happening in carbon offsetting where one ton of carbon
ends up becoming half a ton of carbon and in many cases even zero tons of carbon.
That’s Yeb Sano, head of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
Offsetting has a very long and well documented
history of problems with the validity of carbon offsetting projects.
A landmark 2016 study found out that 85 percent
of the mandatory carbon offsets the Kyoto Protocol had put in place
were not decreasing CO2 in the atmosphere.
And not much has changed since then.
One small example: Another study by a
carbon offset broker recently looked at
a hundred voluntary offsets –
mostly the popular afforestation and conservation projects –
and found that over 90 percent don’t deliver on their promises.
So how the hell is that possible?
Well, it has to do with the very complex nature of carbon offsets.
So back to the peatland.
Question is whether the project that you're
funding might have just happened anyway and if that's the case, then your payment isn't
really making a difference.
This is Derik Broekhoff, he has worked on
energy and climate policy for more than 18 years.
It's not really causing emissions to go down.
So this is the real Achilles heel of the carbon offset market.
What would have happened here without the carbon offset money?
It would have continued to be used as farmland.
It would still be drained and it would have continued
to emit huge quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.
This project is what is called additional.
The money invested had an additional effect of reducing emissions that wouldn’t have
And that’s most often the case for projects that would not be economically viable without
For example: destroying industrial pollutants.
There is no financial reason for this to happen.
The only reason why this gets done is because people pay for it to be done.
A lot of methane capturing and
destroying projects are similar.
But now we get into trickier territory.
It's not so clear in a lot of energy efficiency
projects, renewable energy projects.
That was the case for example in India.
A study showed over half of wind turbines built with carbon offset money would most
probably have been built anyway.
Planting trees or conservation projects can
also be problematic.
Because planting trees is nice and good and all.
And they are great CO2 suckers –
but only as long as they live.
Many of the projects on paper have promised
those plantations stay for the longest time
and then after ten years you visit the site and it’s gone.
For example: Satellite images collected by
Pro Publica in Cambodia show that in the
forested areas that should have been
completely protected, half of the forest
has been logged or otherwise destroyed
ten years later.
Forest fires are another big risk.
Because burnt trees aren’t gonna sequester carbon any time soon.
Afforestation and reforestation are seen as
so problematic that the EU does not allow them as mandatory offsets.
So, as popular as they are, they are not the safest bet.
The next question is: Will the problem just go elsewhere?
Let’s say you buy carbon offsets to help
save the Amazon from deforestation in Brazil.
Maybe that will just shift the problem
to parts of the Amazon that are not protected.
And the rainforest will get logged in neighboring Peru.
And last, but certainly not least,
is the problem of double counting.
Or: Who gets bragging rights?
In the case of this moor, it’s quite simple.
A German airline emits CO2 by flying its planes
and reduces that CO2 by rewetting this moor.
Germany overall gets to reduce its emissions.
But what if that same German airline reduces
its emissions by planting trees in Nicaragua?
Which, yes, it also does.
Who gets to claim the reduction in emissions?
This may sound like a technicality,
but it’s one of the major problems
carbon offsets are facing.
No two countries or no two actors should
be counting the same emission reduction
towards their emission reduction goals.
Unless double counting is avoided,
my purchase of the carbon credit makes
no difference to global emissions.
So, Nicaragua in this case would have to allow
the foreign, German company
to count these offsets as their own
for collective emission reductions to work.
While the mandatory market has set rules to
ensure this, the voluntary market does not have any.
And that ties into a bigger problem:
Imagine you are a multi-billion-dollar company
wanting to offset your millions of tons of CO2.
It’s very tempting to offset your
massive carbon footprint in the easiest,
cheapest way, right?
Which, in a lot of cases, means less regulated,
easily implemented projects, often in the Global South, where restrictions are not so
rigorous and prices are low.
Not to mention – many offsetting programs
have a history of disrespecting land rights of indigenous and local communities.
It’s really hard for a normal consumer to tell
whether a project is legit or not.
I mean I travelled all the way here, this checks out.
But you can’t do that for every single project.
One indicator though can be price.
How much does it cost to offset a ton of CO2 here?
One ton of CO2 costs 64 euros.
That’s quite steep – some carbon offset
platforms offset a ton for 23 Euros –
or even 11 USD – about 10 Euros.
When single carbon offset schemes are way
below that price, that’s not a good sign.
Any activity that was going to happen anyway
can generate emission reductions for essentially zero marginal cost.
I would be wary of a large number of project credits that are inexpensive.
Ok, quick recap: many projects don’t offset carbon,
and some carbon offsets may also help big corporations to greenwash.
But – and the IPCC calculations show that
– it will be extremely hard to reach our
climate targets without some form of offsets.
So what should we do?
There has to be an oversight function,
a system, an institution that could truly
guard against cheating and misrepresentation
in the way carbon offset projects are being run.
There are international certifications that
are supposed to guarantee the quality,
like the Gold Standard as well as
the Verified Carbon Standard –
but even they are not always watertight,
and certifications are voluntary.
Then there also needs to be a change in the type of projects we focus on.
A lot of the market to date has been oriented
around cheaper mitigation and I think we need to flip that around.
Focus on where the investment is needed to
bring about transformational change.
But first and foremost:
You should always start by asking yourself,
how can I reduce or prevernt emissions.
That’s got to be the first option.
Many companies do clearly state that in their
net zero strategies.
But it’s often unclear how many of the tons
of emissions are getting reduced –
and which get offset.
Major polluting companies are trying to
find a way out of taking real action
to tackle the climate emergency.
The world can't offset its way out of climate change,
we all need to be reducing emissions
and doing so rapidly.
So: after all this information,
would you buy a carbon offset now?
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