The Problem With Carbon Offsets

As in-person events return, attendees may have an aversion to air travel for environmental reasons. Offering carbon offsets is one way to mitigate those concerns, but buyer beware: Not all programs are effective, or even credible.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Carbon offsets

The carbon-offset market is “plagued by widespread, fundamental flaws in how offsets are tallied,” Quartz reports. (Nathan Hobbs/Unsplash)

Pre-pandemic, one of the ways that events tried to make themselves more sustainable was to offer attendees the option to purchase carbon offsets, thereby mitigating their carbon travel footprint. In a recent Fast Company article, Patrick Flynn, Salesforce head of sustainability, said the company committed to offsetting all business travel several years ago. That’s a significant amount — in 2019, Salesforce employees’ business travel generated a combined 146,000 metric tons of C02 emissions. That’s the same amount emitted by 17,500 homes over the course of a year.

“Then the pandemic happened, and travel went to zero,” Flynn said, “and our business carried on.” The silver lining of grounding Salesforce employees and workers at other companies “across the spectrum” during the pandemic has been a lowering of carbon emissions from business travel, according to the Fast Company article.

Which raises a question for event organizers as their in-person events return: How heavily will potential participants factor in their carbon travel footprint when deciding whether or not to attend?

If event hosts think offering carbon offsets will sway their decision, a recent Quartz article reports that it’s not so easy to check that box. “The global market for voluntary carbon offset credits is going gangbusters,” Quartz reported. “But the market remains plagued by widespread, fundamental flaws in how offsets are tallied, turning a critical element of the corporate campaign against climate change into a house built on sand.”

Carbon offsets are derived from activities that take carbon out of the atmosphere, Quartz explains, with forest conservation being the most common. But the offset market is a “Wild West,” and “facing more challenges to their credibility than ever,” according to the article. Investigations by journalists, environmental groups, and even offset brokering companies themselves have revealed “dubious assumptions, willful misrepresentations, and systemic accounting errors in the offset market” that ultimately do the opposite — driving emissions up and enabling offset purchasers to unwittingly greenwash their image.

Not all offsets are a scam, the article points out. Credible offsets are available, but it pays to do your due diligence. Sarah Leugers is a spokesperson for Gold Standard — an organization established in 2003 by the World Wildlife Fund and other international NGOs “to ensure that projects that reduced carbon emissions featured the highest levels of environmental integrity and also contributed to sustainable development,” according to its website. Leugers said some problems with forest-based offsets may be “unfixable.”

Instead, Leugers said, the market needs to put greater focus on offsets that are more “readily verifiable,” including those that “support methane capture on farms, freestanding direct carbon capture technology, or clean cookstove programs that come with economic development co-benefits.”

And ultimately, Leugers said, the goal of the carbon offset market should be to make itself obsolete. “We don’t want to take our eye off the ball,” she told Quartz, “in terms of reducing the fossil fuels we’re burning today.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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