In 2015, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement, committing to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to limit global warming to below 1.5°C or 2°C. Since then, everyone wants (claim?) to be carbon neutral. But there are different ways to achieve carbon neutrality. Carbon offsetting has become a popular solution, but the difference between offsetting and reducing CO2 emissions can sometimes be confusing.
What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offset programs allow companies and individuals to compensate for the CO2 emissions that they can’t avoid by supporting projects or initiatives that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions elsewhere, through tree planting, renewable energy generation, or conservation efforts. The CO2 emissions that those projects help to avoid are then converted into carbon credits that are purchased by companies or individuals who wish to compensate for their CO2 emissions, past or future.
There are two different compensation systems. The first one is the 1992 Kyoto Protocol when many countries and big corporations agreed to reduce their GHG emissions by investing in environmental projects around the world. This legal system, heavily regulated by the UN, gives these actors a “right to pollute” equivalent to their financial contribution. The second system is an open and voluntary offset market, aimed at everyone else who wants to offset their carbon footprint. Individuals and businesses can compensate for their past carbon footprint or even offset their future carbon footprint, to achieve the grail: “carbon neutrality”.
The shortcomings of the carbon offset system
Although carbon offset programs can help reduce climate change, there are some issues with this method that should be considered. The main problem is that carbon offset is often seen as the go-to solution, while it should only be considered for the CO2 emissions that an individual or a company can’t avoid or reduce anymore. A businessman that takes a plane from Paris to Marseille and pays to offset his trip is still polluting more than if he took the train.
Another issue is that the whole system is transactional, while the fundamental challenge is behavioural. Paying is a transfer of responsibility, which is the total opposite of what everyone should be doing. Paying is also easier than changing your behaviour, and the carbon offset system has allowed businesses to keep polluting conscious-free.
Unfortunately, as with every new market, the voluntary carbon offset industry suffers from a lack of regulation, control and hindsight. Many systems have yet to prove their efficiency and real impact on the reduction of GHG emissions. A lot of companies offering carbon offset solutions aren’t detailing exactly what they do, and some programs can be difficult to evaluate and verify, which may result in companies or individuals investing in projects that do not actually deliver significant GHG reductions.
Finally, carbon offset has been over-used to promote carbon neutrality. And as a growing number of consumers are becoming more and more aware of their impact on global warming, they tend to look for carbon-neutral products and services. The issue is that they are unconsciously trying to reduce the guilt of purchase, and marketers and advertisers know this. This is known as “greenwashing“, or the misleading or fraudulent use of environmental marketing claims. Any solution that favours consumerism is not helping to bring more sobriety to our habits and society.
The real challenge is to reduce our own emissions
Offsetting all the CO2 emissions of all the companies in the world is physically impossible. There is just not enough land on earth to plant that many trees. And while carbon offsetting can play a role in achieving carbon neutrality, it should be viewed as just one piece of the larger climate change mitigation puzzle. To really reduce our carbon footprint, we, as individuals, businesses or states, need to make changes to our actions and behaviours that will have a direct impact on reducing our emissions.
The first step is to measure our emissions. For individuals, this can be done through online carbon calculators or apps. For businesses and large organizations, it is crucial to have a thorough accounting of all your GHG emissions sources or to hire specialized companies to help you in that process. The measurement process will help you identify key contributors to your CO2 emissions before you can start to plan on how to reduce those emissions as much as possible. Some basic actions that can help include changing transport habits, improving energy efficiency in buildings, investing in green technologies, or making a conscious effort to reduce food waste.
When you can no longer reduce or avoid any more CO2 emissions, the best way to offset them is by supporting credible environmental projects that will actually result in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon offset programs should focus on creating real social and environmental benefits without compromising human rights or biodiversity, while also offering transparency and monitoring systems so that you, as a consumer or investor, can be sure that your money is going towards effective and meaningful climate change mitigation projects.
So while carbon offset may seem like an easy fix for our individual or organizational carbon footprint, it is important to remember that the real and sustainable solution to tackling global warming lies in reducing our own emissions and supporting credible environmental programs that will truly lead to a more sustainable future.
At Sopht, we created a GreenOps solution that is the perfect way to help the environment, update your digital infrastructure and improve your finances all at once. Because going green isn’t just about being environmentally conscious; it’s about saving money, too. We offer multi-cloud monitoring to rationalize your infrastructure and related costs by measuring and comparing your different Cloud Providers environmental efficiency. Our IT asset management services allow you to consolidate, organize and pilot all data related to your IT inventory (laptops, screens, smartphones, routers…) to better amortize your carbon and financial footprint. This helps us understand how your users are interacting with their devices so that you can better manage your IT assets and plan for decarbonization.
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