The Carbon offsetting conundrum

The conundrum about what to do about climate change may have been put on the back burner during the covid crisis but as we emerge from the lockdowns and slowly get back to normal, saving the planet has rightly become an urgent priority.

The threats of climate change are the direct result of there being too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It therefore follows that we must stop emitting more, whilst also working to remove that which is already there. This idea is central to the world’s current plan to avoid catastrophe.

For businesses who are keen to ‘do their bit’, choosing to offset carbon emissions is a popular choice. Various options such as tree planting schemes and purchasing shares in ‘green projects’ are becoming more and more popular, but are they really enough to counteract the negative impact?

Some activists have questioned this and have started to highlight the huge demand placed on forests to save us from human-caused climate change.

Plants and trees absorb CO₂ from the atmosphere, transforming it into leaves, wood and roots, and governments, companies and conservationists have ploughed energy and funds into conserving and planting a huge amount of vegetation. The current consensus is that if we deploy these, and other so-called “carbon dioxide removal” techniques at the same time as reducing our burning of fossil fuels, we can more rapidly halt global warming to achieve net zero status. However, many are now arguing that this attitude is increasingly dangerous because the this ‘net zero’ concept has essentially paved the way for a recklessly cavalier “burn now, pay later” approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar.

This is worrying but perhaps even more so, is the realisation that carbon dioxide removal techniques might never actually be enough.

According to Bonnie Waring from Imperial college London who recently conducted a review on carbon offsetting, “There aren’t enough trees to offset society’s carbon emissions – and there never will be.” Her recent review of the available scientific literature to assess how much carbon forests could feasibly absorb, found that even if we “absolutely maximised the amount of vegetation all land on Earth could hold, we’d sequester enough carbon to offset about ten years of greenhouse gas emissions at current rates. After that, there could be no further increase in carbon capture.”

This may be a bitter pill to swallow when so much focus has been placed on this as a solution but it could be wise to stop kidding ourselves or accepting the assumption that everything will be fine if we just plant more trees and look after the oceans. Now that we know that tree planting alone can never address the problem in its entirety, there is more incentive to address the cause as well as doing all we can to find solutions to the symptoms.

Reducing carbon waste in all aspects of life is vital. Perhaps the recent lockdowns have had some sort of sliver lining in this respect. Many more of us are now working from the comfort of our own homes and businesses have realised the value of online meetings and remote working. This will inevitably cut down on commuting, and potentially business trips and air travel overseas. It will be sometime until we see if this really does have a positive reduction on pollution, but this change, along with the increase in electrical vehicles does, at least, offer some hope.

In conclusion, whilst tree planting does help and does play an extremely important part, it can only help if we drastically reduce carbon emissions and reduce them fast. This is high on the government’s agenda and only time will tell whether the current environmental master plan will go far enough to save the planet before it’s too late.

 

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