News article

Taking a closer look at carbon offsetting criticisms

In August, John Oliver, the Emmy-winning satirist and host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, said carbon offsetting is a waste of time and money, and may actually be detrimental to the environment. His comments were targeted at the unscrupulous operators which proffer low integrity climate projects, but he used a broad brush to cast aspersions on all climate projects, and that is unfortunate. 

This isn’t the first time Oliver, an advocate for fighting climate change, has used his platform to discuss the environment. In 2014, he famously hosted a “mathematically representative climate change debate”, which featured Bill Nye the Science Guy plus 96 other scientists shouting down 3 climate skeptics. The stunt was hugely entertaining and helped to reinforce our reality of human-caused climate change. 

In 2019, he endorsed the use of policy-led reforms in America, touting the Green New Deal as “great” for fostering debate on a broad plan to combat climate change. He emphasized “no one solution will be nearly enough” to save our planet, then rattled off 11 climate ideas including sustainable aviation fuels, higher density city planning and scaling up carbon capture technologies, all in 15 seconds. Unfortunately, he spent the next 30 seconds making an unrelated Game of Thrones joke, rather than explaining how even a few of those 11 climate ideas would take many decades and trillions of dollars to make a reality.

It’s easy to criticize low-quality carbon offsetting, but satire is not critical thinking. It’s entertainment. 

High-quality carbon offsets do offer a practical means to reduce carbon emissions and to offset emissions that are hard to avoid. These are necessary weapons in our fight against climate change, because they offer a way to combat emissions now, not the decades it will take to develop and deploy at scale technical innovations like sustainable aviation fuels and carbon capture technologies. When done right, these climate projects stem the otherwise uncontrollable harm being done to our planet.

John Oliver is right when he says “we can’t offset our way out of climate change”. He is also right when he says we must combat climate change “from multiple angles”. Any company that genuinely commits to protecting and restoring the health of our planet must invest in long-term and systemic change, as well as high-trust carbon offsetting now, plus practical ways to engage consumers in more sustainable habits. 

Our partners at Simpliflying have recently published a report that takes a closer look at the criticisms facing both low integrity climate projects and the unscrupulous businesses that use them as a cheap, ineffective way to greenwash their customer base. In the report, Simpliflying unpacks comments from the recent episode of Last Week Tonight to then present recommendations airlines and businesses can use to achieve high integrity when integrating carbon offsetting into their broader sustainability strategy. 

These recommendations are built upon the rigorous process we use, at CarbonClick, to select and manage our portfolio of high-trust carbon offsetting projects. This includes high-trust climate projects from across the globe, providing options that may resonate with our customers and their local markets. Our quality process begins with an initial certification by independent registries, followed by an internal audit against six high-quality standards:

  1. Is it real? The carbon sequestration or emissions reductions have taken place.
  2. Is this creating an additional impact? The project would not happen without carbon financing.
  3. Is it quantified? The carbon offsets are accurate and demonstrate no risk of being double-counted.
  4. Is the impact permanent/no leakage? For example, if it is a forestry project, is that forest protected for at least 50–100 years and is there assurance that – in protecting that forest – carbon emissions are not increased elsewhere.
  5. Is it verified? The project quality has been independently verified by a reputable registry.
  6. Are there co-benefits? By supporting the climate project, there are benefits to communities and biodiversity, with no negative consequences to other communities or biodiversity. 

 All projects within our portfolio demonstrate co-benefits that support at least 3 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), create a lasting and positive impact on the local community, and, where possible, empower indigenous peoples to drive the effort in accordance with their local values.

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