Making emission offsets work

Last year, one of the major European airlines started offering “CO2 neutral flights”. These soothing words appeared, together with an adorable leaf logo, right under the “book now” button on their website. A last reminder to leave any feelings of environmental guilt at home and just enjoy the trip. And then green-clad gas stations started popping up in France, not dispensing good old diesel and petrol, but “carbon compensated fuel” - quotes are mine -. Some media outlets picked up the story with an uplifting angle: “the more you fill up, the more you save the planet” (again, my quotes. They don’t bother with quotes.) Even the smartphone brand with a fruit is going “carbon-neutral”.

Impressive. I thought this was going to be hard.

Activists, climate modeling experts, cloud formation nerds, climate archeologists and all their colleagues have been telling us we’re facing the biggest challenge our species has ever met, that the path to a stable and liveable climate will be a tough and long one.Have these companies, on top of pursuing profit above all else, solved climate change?

We need to get to net-zero emissions.

Every 6 years, the IPCC - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - condenses thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers in a series of dense, but still readable, reports. They embody the sum of human knowledge on our climate, how we’re changing it and what we might consider doing to avoid wrecking it.

The latest iteration came out in August 2021. To no one’s surprise, it’s not brimming with good news. It reconfirms that we’ve already warmed the planet by about 1°C versus pre-industrial times, and also that we might be heading towards a 4°C warmer world by the end of the century. A 4°C warmer world is difficult to imagine. It’s a world even climate modeling experts struggle to describe, because of the climate instabilities and feedback loops we might trigger on our way there. It won’t be a world we’ll be proud to hand over to our children and their children, though. Even a 2°C warmer world poses enough risks that some describe it as “catastrophic”.

Interestingly, as far as mind-bogglingly complex problems go, climate change comes with a simple solution: we need to stop building-up greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Read more about it : carbon cycle.

We want the concentration of these gases to stay stable, at a level a tad lower than the 400ppm - parts per million - we have today for CO2. Globally, we need to strike the right balance between what we pump into the atmosphere and what is captured back by natural or technological systems.

That’s what we call achieving “net-zero emissions”, going “climate-neutral” or “carbon-neutral”. If we get there, we can give ourselves serious pats on the back and open a few bottles of carbon-neutral Champagne, or fizzy drinks.

How they claim net-zero emissions today.

Picture an enormous pile of laundry. One with the dirty socks of all sock-wearing humans. Now imagine that, for some reason, our lives depended on keeping the size of that pile stable - not too small and not too big - and that all we have to clean these socks are a few washing machines. To keep the pile of stinky socks at just the right size, we need to stop adding as many dirty socks to the pile as possible, and keep those washing machines turning 24/7.

Our climate works, roughly, in the same way. If we want to keep the concentration of greenhouse gases stable, we need to:

- Pump as little as possible of these greenhouse gases into the air. That’s what we call emissions reductions.

- Absorb and store as much of these gases from the atmosphere. That’s called carbon removal, or negative emissions.

In practice, this means reducing our emissions by 5-10% each year from 2030, reaching almost zero just after mid-century and capturing enough CO2 back out from the atmosphere to get to net-zero emissions. That’s if we want a decent chance at keeping global warming below 2°C by 2100.

Companies selling “CO2-neutral flights”, “Climate-neutral smartphones” or anything else that makes it look like they have solved climate change know this. They’ve probably looked at reducing their emissions and found it hard. Very hard. As an example, for an airline today, the only option to reduce emissions to zero is to ground the fleet and go bankrupt. So they probably turned to the second option - carbon capture - and quickly figured out it was just as hard. Being well intentioned, they continued on their quest for “carbon-neutrality” and settled on the easy false-solution of buying a bunch of carbon offsets.

Emission offsets are easy.

Emission offsets try to equate a surplus of emissions somewhere, with a commitment to keep emissions lower somewhere else.

Stretching the already shaky pile-of-dirty-socks analogy further, “dirty socks offsets” would work like this: anyone can continue piling up their dirty laundry, as long as they purchase offsets from someone else who promises to either do more laundry or pile up less of their own dirty socks.

Carbon offsets are easy. Anyone can buy them. All you need is an internet connection and €20 in your bank account.

Offset projects might offer to sequester CO2 - which means capturing and storing - by planting trees. Other offsets support the buildup of wind or solar energy projects, which might help avoid the construction of yet another coal-fired power plant. Still other projects suggest you try to compensate emissions by handing out new water filters to Haitian households, reducing deforestation at the same time.

Solid logic. Until you look at the details.

But we can't offset our way out of this mess.

Some say emission offsets look like elaborate accounting tricks. Arguably, some of them are. And accounting tricks won’t make solve climate change:

- Offsets equate actual emissions, happening today, with the possibility of capturing - or just avoiding - an unrelated amount of emissions at some point in the future. The scientific basis behind many offset projects is very weak and their actual climate impact uncertain.

- Since our emissions far exceed the amount of offset projects available in the world, they are not a viable, large-scale solution. Offset projects as we know them today might help compensate for a few percent of our emissions, not more. And only a globally carbon-neutral economy makes sense.

- Offsets give us a false sense of achievement, diverting attention and resources from the necessary emissions reductions.

Companies claiming “carbon neutrality” today are not building a carbon-neutral world, they’re creating confusion. Worse, they’re postponing climate action.

Achieving net-zero emissions, for real.

Achieving “carbon neutrality,” or “net-zero emissions,” as early as possible after 2050 will determine if we can avoid the worst effects of climate change. We’ll only get there by:

• First, reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases to less than 10% of what they are today. This is a global endeavour, and that a single company’s claim to be “carbon-neutral” has no impact on the actual evolution of our climate.

• Then - and only then - compensating for hard-to-avoid emissions, such as the ones necessary to ensure food security, by capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. We won’t, reasonably and optimistically, be able to capture over 10% of what we emit today. To do that, we cannot rely on wobbly offset schemes and hope for the best. We need reliable Negative Emission Technologies.

Negative Emission Technologies.

We will need reliable and measurable solutions that pump CO2 right out of the atmosphere. We will need technologies that are quickly scalable and have the smallest possible negative side effects : Negative Emissions Technologies

Fortunately, smart people have been looking into this. They’ve come up with ways to sieve through huge amounts of air, capture CO2 and pump it deep underground; ways to boost natural carbon sinks by spreading minerals on beaches; or ways to keep wetlands healthy so they continue pumping CO2 out of the atmosphere.

But we're late, very late.

Unfortunately, we’re not moving fast enough.

We need to see these negative emission technologies making a dent by 2030. That’s soon, considering we might have to finance, authorize, design, build hundreds of Direct Air Capture facilities each year, and the power plants needed to keep them running. Or that might have to build a mining industry bigger than the coal industry today, almost from scratch.

Yet, 80% of research papers are focusing on basic R&D, and only a handful of projects are laboriously moving out of the lab for field experiments. We don’t understand the full impact of these technologies on people, ecosystems or even the climate. Our cost estimates are informed-guesses.We’re going to have to align our creativity - we have a lot -, our capital - we have plenty -, our political will - we have very little - and our collective intelligence - we have some - in the same direction, fast.