What is carbon offsetting and does it really work?

Some months ago, I saw this tweet and had to save it, because it made me laugh probably more than it should:

It’s a response to Elon Musk’s original Tweet donating $100M (yes, you read that right) as a prize to anyone who comes up with the best carbon-capturing technology. The response by Cody Johnston, American podcaster, reads: "Congratulations to whoever invents forests".

While the rising carbon emissions in our atmosphere and the consequences of the global warming that millions of people are already experiencing today are far from a laughing matter, I think that this tweet captures well the dominant thinking about emissions, trees, and an ongoing search for “the perfect solution”.

So, let’s say it right away: there is no perfect solution to our climate crisis. It is a far too complex thing that no single action can solve. Of course, there are many actions, mindset shifts, and habit changes we can do to slow it down and mitigate some of the consequences. And one of them is carbon offsetting, which is getting very popular. Especially with the surge in online shopping last year, we started thinking more about the emissions we are producing. And the most popular method that I see more and more companies and brands offering is planting trees. 

But does it really work? 

We are going to explore that right now!

 

What is carbon offsetting? 

According to Britannica, a carbon offset is any activity that compensates for the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) or other greenhouse gases by providing for an emission reduction elsewhere. In other words, it can be anything we do to reduce the emissions in the atmosphere, to make up for the emissions our activities produce. 

In essence, this is an important idea that could help us reduce the impact of climate change. Considering that virtually everything humans do produces C02 and other gases, we need to think of ways to reduce them too. A few terms are connected to this idea, like going carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Both are usually goals and expected outcomes of carbon offsetting programmes and strategies.  

It may seem like a recent thing, but the idea has existed since the 1970s and it appears first in the US federal law called Clean Air Act. Since, we have seen other laws, big schemes, and other initiatives emerging globally. Big companies and even major events, like the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, have been having their elaborate offsetting plans. Among others, countries can trade offsets and carbon produced. If it sounds crazy, it sort of is. There is certainly a lot to say about that, and we may question if this actually works in reducing our overall emissions. However, the world of global and political offset trade is too big to cover right now. Instead, I’d like to focus on one particular way of carbon offsetting that is much closer to us, as individuals, and that you probably have seen before. 

And that is planting trees.

 

What's the point of planting trees?

Going back to the response to Elon Musk’s tweet, forests are nature’s biggest carbon-capturing technology, together with oceans. Forests around the world absorb 7.6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 per year or 1.5 times more carbon than the United States emits annually. It is because trees turn C02 into sugar or energy, needed for them to grow. As a side effect of this, they provide oxygen, so there’s literally no life without trees. Just wait until Elon Musk hears about that! 

Joke aside, it’s not hard to see why tree planting is a popular method for carbon offsetting. The math is quite straightforward: we can calculate the carbon footprint we produce and see how many trees we need to absorb that amount. With all the data we have today, it’s quite easy to see how much C02 an average citizen of any country in the world produces. There are even apps and online tools that can help you calculate your personal carbon footprint. I recommend checking some of these out because it’s good to have an idea of how our food, transport, fashion, and other choices have an effect on how much emissions we produce.  

But before continuing, a quick note that the very idea of a personal carbon footprint was invented by British Petroleum (BP). Yes, an oil and gas company, and one of the biggest polluters in the world. From the beginning, such companies have used the idea of personal carbon footprint to shift the responsibility to the individuals. Of course, as I said, we as individuals and consumers should rethink our habits, especially us living in Western countries and having transportation, food, and other options to choose from. I will argue any day that if we can choose, we have a responsibility to choose better. But keep in mind that the idea of personal responsibility, carbon footprint (and thus offsetting), and greenwashing often goes hand in hand.  

I’ll explain what I mean.

 

Is it greenwashing?

Tree planting can work in different ways. Often, a brand or company selling something, like clothes or cosmetics, will partner with an organisation (usually non-profit) or a project that plants trees. This way, the company can offset their own emissions by paying someone to do it for them, or they can even offer their consumers to offset the purchases they make. Nowadays, many companies are specialising in tree planting, and some offer services directly to individuals. 

But is it greenwashing? 

Well, it’s not simple to tell. 

I’ve seen companies offering carbon offsetting without much context. They either vaguely say that they offset their carbon by planting trees and not providing any more details. Or they can offer to plant a tree in your name, again without many details. And things can get murky here.

Tree planting isn’t necessarily greenwashing on its own, but when a company offers this practice as their main reason to call themselves “sustainable” or “green” then it’s a problem. Companies, of any size and kind, should first work on reducing their impact, rather than offset it. Offsetting is a great thing to have but is not an excuse to continue an unsustainable business model. And that’s probably the main point I’m trying to make here. Offsetting in any form isn’t a bad idea. But we should really look for a way to reduce our carbon (and ecological) footprint in the long term. As I mentioned in the beginning, offsetting means making up for the emissions we make elsewhere. That is nice as a first step but not so good as an ultimate goal. Exactly the same is with tree planting. If you can, plant the trees or support the companies that do that. But don’t stop there. Demand the companies to do more. Always look at the company’s entire business model, not just their offsetting strategy. 

Let me illustrate what I mean. On one hand, if a company doesn’t show any real and measurable efforts in reducing their footprint currently (and not just their wishes for the future), it is likely that they are greenwashing us with their tree planting. On the other hand, if a company is producing their stuff ethically, and trying to use sustainable ingredients and materials, their tree planting efforts are an extra step they are taking. In that case, it’s not greenwashing but a part of their overall business. 

And even with that in mind, there are still things to be aware of. Thus, here’s a little list.

  

Anti-greenwashing checklist

  •         No immediate results

A thing you should know is that tree planting isn’t an immediate offsetting strategy. That means that the C02 you or a company makes won’t be immediately absorbed by the tree you planted. Trees need years, sometimes decades to grow. So tree planting will pay off perhaps in the future. However, studies show that younger trees absorb carbon quicker and better, compared to old trees. So, it’s still a good investment, just keep in mind that it’s for the future, rather than right now.

  •         Can I track the tree?

Even if a company has good intentions, we still need proof that they are actually planting the trees. It is not enough to have a vague promise. Instead, look if a company is offering some way to track where your tree is.

  •         Who is planting?

Just as I mentioned, most companies partner with someone who’s planting the trees in their or their customer’s name. We need to know who these organisations are, as well as how they work. Do these organisations employ people local to where they plant trees and do they provide ethical working conditions? 

  •         What trees do they plant?

Finally, we need to keep in mind that tree planting can sometimes do more harm than good. We need initiatives that are careful to plant local trees, as well as to encourage and improve the biodiversity of an area, instead of planting monocultures (single type of tree).  

 

Ok, I know that was a lot. It’s because carbon offsetting is a complex topic, and I was only able to cover a little part of it. If there’s anything to draw from this is that we need to restore our forests and ecosystems, if we want to minimise and slow down the effects of climate change. Thus, planting trees and offsetting can be a worthy investment in our (near) future. But we need to be conscious of how we do it and avoid using this as an alibi to continue “business as usual”. 


For this reason, GNGR Bees started the Nursery project in July 2020. The project aims to rehabilitate the forests in Tonga and help to increase the food security for the community. It’s a small project with currently only 6 people involved, but the team has been successfully growing native trees and fruits since. The team is led by a local agricultural scientist and a farmer, who are both using their extensive knowledge and creativity to identify the right plants and find the best methods to plant. You can read more about the project here. And if you buy anything from GNGR Bees carbon collection, you are directly funding the Nursery project. 

 If there’s something you wish to know more about the Nursery project or carbon offsetting, let us know! We would love to write more articles like this!


 

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