Do offsetting schemes lead to false carbon neutrality?

In an era where the threat of climate change looms over us like a dark cloud, we must take responsibility for our role in carbon emissions. However, the term “carbon-neutral” has become a buzzword that is often misused by companies looking to appear environmentally conscious without actually making significant reductions in their emissions. Some might call it a greenwashing tactic – but we wouldn’t dare be that bold.

The offsetting charade

Terms like “climate neutral” or “climate positive” have been thrown around carelessly, enabling businesses to claim sustainability by simply purchasing carbon offsets. These offsets are meant to compensate for an organisation’s emissions by investing in projects that reduce greenhouse gases elsewhere. Unfortunately, recent investigations have exposed many offsetting schemes as nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Take Verra, the world’s largest carbon-offsetting certifier. In 2023, an investigation by The Guardian revealed that over 90% of the carbon credits sold by Verra did not lead to any emission reductions. This discovery shed light on the flaws within the system and demonstrated how easily companies can exploit these offsetting schemes without taking concrete steps to reduce their own carbon footprint.

A similar study conducted by the European Commission found that 85% of the offset projects used by the EU under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) failed to reduce emissions.

Paying our way out?

The problem with relying solely on offsetting as a solution to climate change is its fundamental flaw: it allows businesses to continue emitting greenhouse gases unchecked while paying others to clean up their mess. It’s akin to hiring someone else to do your homework; you may receive good grades, but what are they truly worth?

To address this issue directly, the European Union (EU) has announced plans to ban terms such as “climate neutral” and “climate positive” that solely rely on offsetting by 2026. This crackdown on misleading environmental claims is a positive step forward, compelling businesses to be more transparent about their efforts to reduce emissions.

From monitoring our buildings to net-zero

While (credible) offsetting schemes may have a role in transitioning towards a sustainable future, they cannot be relied upon as the sole solution. So what should we do? We turn our attention to our buildings. Our buildings play a significant role in achieving net-zero carbon targets and provide us with essential information.

By effectively monitoring the performance of our buildings, we can identify areas of waste and inefficiency, enabling us to implement targeted measures for reducing consumption. Simple solutions like weather-compensated heating systems or advanced technologies like demand-controlled HVAC systems offer numerous ways to make a tangible impact on carbon emissions before considering investments in renewable resources.

The first step toward net-zero is as simple as looking at the information our buildings provide us. Leading the way to a future where carbon neutrality isn’t just a catchy slogan – but an undeniable reality.