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Not all carbon offsets are created equal

They may not be the best climate tool, but for some sectors, they’re the only tool
Carbon offsets have been the target of much criticism but may be the only effective means for some sectors to reduce their net effect on climate change | francoimage/Shutterstock

During the recent federal election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was branded as a climate hypocrite when it was discovered his campaign was using two Boeing 737s to shuttle him and media across the country.

The Trudeau campaign responded by saying it had countered its emissions through carbon offsets bought through Less Emissions.

The question that immediately arose was: Do carbon offsets actually do anything to address climate change? Or are they merely greenwashing certificates issued to high-flying climate scolds who burn tonnes of CO2 while flying from city to city to lecture people on the importance of cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?

Carbon offsets have been likened to medieval indulgences that allowed the sinful to buy their way into heaven. Some critics call them a licence to pollute.

That’s not really an apt metaphor, however. They are more like the drain in a bathtub with a running faucet, and the idea isn’t necessarily to drain the tub, but rather to at least keep it from overflowing.

A $30 carbon offset purchased for a return flight from Vancouver to Toronto is not intended to produce a net GHG reduction. Rather, it’s intended to cancel out the CO2 you produce on your flight when your retailer buys credits in, say, a landfill gas flaring project.

Experts in sustainable energy economics generally agree that, while they may not be the best tool in the tool belt, carbon offsets are necessary for certain hard-to-abate sectors, like aviation or the cruise industry.

But they caution that not all carbon offset schemes are created equal, and that anyone investing in them needs to do their homework to ensure the offsets they buy don’t end up as soap in a greenwashing machine.

“High-quality carbon offsets create real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while minimizing other related environmental concerns, but some carbon offsets on the market likely have little or no climate benefit,” a report by the Pembina Institute and David Suzuki Foundation concluded in a 2009 report.

“Offsets can be effective – especially if targeted at projects that are verifiable and generate high public benefits,” said Hadi Dowlatabadi, a University of British Columbia professor and research chairman for applied mathematics and integrated assessment of climate change.

He has some serious reservations with offsets that fund forestry conservation projects, however. So does Mark Jaccard, professor of sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University.

“You will get experts who tell you that forest carbon offsets are effective and experts who tell you they are not effective,” Jaccard said. “My own take is that they are not effective.”

A recent ProPublica investigation – provocatively titled “Why Carbon Credits for Forest Preservation May Be Worse than Nothing” – underscores some of Jaccard’s and Dowlatabadi’s skepticism.

The investigation used satellite analysis to determine that only half of the trees promised in tree-planting projects that received carbon offset money since 2013 had actually been planted.

“In case after case, I found that carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with,” writes Lisa Song, lead author of the ProPublica report.

“Ultimately, the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO2, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last.”

Diego Saez Gil, a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, who has launched a new forestry-based carbon offset company, Pachama, agrees there are problems with forestry conservation, afforestation and reforestation as a carbon offset investment.

His company is deploying some high-tech solutions to try to improve the verification and validation process, including satellite imaging, machine learning and remote sensing.

“We started this company precisely because we saw the problems that this market has,” he said.

Calculating the sequestration potential of a forest requires taking a sample plot, physically measuring trees and extrapolating to the entire conservation area being qualified for carbon credits.

“Today, the verifications are done every five years, because they’re so expensive and slow, whereas we can do weekly verifications,” Gil said. “We have new satellite images weekly, and we update and have an almost real-time view of what’s happening in the forest. If someone cuts down a tree, we can see that.”

He hopes to see these tools become standard for carbon offset verifiers and validators.

“If we can put these tools at the service of the market, then more funding can go to the right projects,” he said.

He points to a study in Science earlier this year that calculates there are a billion hectares of potential land globally that could be reforested, which could sequester up to 25% of atmospheric CO2, and says offsets could be a valuable mechanism for funding some of that reforestation.

“The restoration of trees remains among the most effective strategies for climate change mitigation,” the study concludes.

The problem is the timelines. Whereas a switch from coal power to natural gas, or natural gas to wind or solar, produces an almost instant GHG reduction, it would take decades for new forests to start absorbing significant amounts of CO2 – a time frame that doesn’t work if the deadlines for emissions reductions are as urgent as climate scientists say they are.

That is one of the reasons why some offset companies avoid forestry portfolios altogether. Less Emissions, for example, does not buy offsets in forestry conservation or reforestation.

A subsidiary of Bullfrog Power, Less Emissions focuses on projects like landfill gas flaring. Bullfrog Power, meanwhile, buys renewable energy certificates from renewable energy projects.

Bullfrog has 1,600 business customers and 10,000 households that voluntarily buy renewable energy certificates. For small projects like methane capture and flaring at small, unregulated landfills, offsets have become an important financing source, said Christine Carter, the company’s regional sales director.

“Without the offset dollars, small landfills are not capturing and flaring,” Carter said.

The company has stayed away from forestry projects because it wanted only those projects that meet the verification gold standard – which is literally called the Gold Standard – and when that standard was created, it did not include forestry, only energy.

“We still recommend that people get Gold Standard certified offsets,” said Tom Green, climate solutions policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation.

Less Emissions’ lack of a forestry conservation portfolio is one of the reasons Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission settled on it as one of two Canadian offset retailers that it is likely to use, should the commission decide to start offsetting its own employees’ air travel.

“We’re all research wonks, so we wanted to take a good approach to this so we knew for sure that our money would be going towards something beneficial and something additional in terms of GHG reduction,” said Jonathan Arnold, senior research associate with Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission.

“We wanted to stay away from forests – afforestation or forestation offsets – just because they are plagued with a little bit of uncertainty at the moment.”

(Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct factual errors.)

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