Are Carbon Offsets important?
Should they be the entirety of your Net Zero strategy?
An interesting question was raised after yesterday’s email about Sendle, the 100% carbon neutral delivery service.
Sendle are Carbon Neutral because they purchase offset credits.
What that means is that for every delivery, they can calculate the amount of CO2 that particular delivery has sprayed up into the atmosphere and, through an offset program, they plant whatever number of trees will offset that same amount of carbon.
So technically, the trees cancel out the emissions and reset Sendle's total emissions output to zero... technically. Carbon credits are mitigating some of the problem, but they’re not fixing it completely.
The offsets system is good, but far from perfect. Globally, humans emit 43 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, and trees are built to grab that stuff out of the air, store it away, and use it for good things.
The bad news is that currently trees, soil and vegetation globally can only grab around 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. Around 15% of what we omit. There was never meant to be this much carbon for them to drawn down from the air. Trees had it good for a long time. Working maybe a half-day every week, checking emails, grabbing a little carbon while they were there. Now they're working nights and weekends, and struggling to keep up.
This is a terribly oversimplified calculation, as there are A LOT of variations. For one, trees also emit some CO2 as part of their natural process, when they die and decompose, or when they burn in fires. They’re also only fully operational as a CO2 sequestering device after (in general) about 20 years of life, so a tree planted today won’t actually grab much carbon out of the air for a long time.
It’s an imperfect system, but planting more trees can only be a good thing, as long as they’re planted in safe areas that wont be logged, deforested, burned, or simply die due to poor management.
Back to the carbon offsets thing.
If your entire Net Zero strategy is to buy credits, on paper it looks great (and is a great thing to do) but in reality, you’re kinda just delaying your positive impact. Some organisations use offsets as permission to continue emitting CO2 with no strategy to minimise their output.
Trees alone can’t keep up if we continue to emit. It’s like cooking a roaring bbq with smoke billowing off your grill, and using a straw to suck the smoke out of the air.
We need to both reduce the amount of bbq smoke, while in the meantime making the straw as big as possible to help out (by planting more trees). We’ve been told our point-of-no-return is 2050, which means the total emissions need to drop to zero by 2050. To have a chance of hitting that, we need to halve what we are omitting today by 2030.
If the entire global strategy for Net Zero was for everyone to buy carbon offsets, we wouldn’t get there. We’d have lots more trees, but no less emissions. The emissions simply need to come down.
The good news?
Offsets aren’t the only thing happening right now. The future is VERY positive.
This is where renewables come in to replace coal power and gas.
It’s where kelp, mangroves and other ocean ecosystems can help lighten the load for trees (an acre of kelp can sequester 20x more carbon than an acre of trees!).
It’s where EV fleets replace petrol ones.
It’s where companies innovate things we take for granted like plastic packaging (huge emissions in plastic production and end-of-life management), and create new things such as completely biodegradable packaging made from mushrooms (significantly less emissions in production and EOL).
So offset your carbon FOR SURE, but only as a supplement to your overall strategy.
There’s a directory of offset programs on the Clean Energy Regulator website, but it’s not a complete list as new projects start all the time. So keep your eyes peeled for programs that other companies are using too, and do some due diligence when looking into them.
(FYI, Sendle are likely offsetting other courier companies emissions, as they don’t operate any of their own fleet).
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