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New Research Continues To Debunk Old Myths On Carbon Offsetting

Steve Zwick

Nearly all economists agree that if you want to end climate change, you need to put a price on carbon and then integrate that price into the economy — whether via offsets that pay for emission-reductions elsewhere or via a carbon tax.

24 October 2017 | Every few years, New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity surveys economists who have expertise on climate change, and it always finds overwhelming support for putting a price on carbon to drive down emissions — support that ideologues on the right routinely dismiss, usually on unfounded “economic” grounds.

Likewise, every year Ecosystem Marketplace surveys companies that use carbon offsets to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions, and it always finds companies that engage in carbon offsetting do so as part of a larger emission-reduction strategy — a finding that ideologues on the left routinely dismiss on unfounded “environmental” grounds.

No one claims that carbon markets alone will fix the climate mess, but they do have a role to play, and its a role we hope to understand a bit more after this week, we thanks to two new surveys — one focused explicitly on the motives and strategies of voluntary carbon buyers, and the other focused on the specific ways that voluntary carbon markets are being utilized in different parts of the world. The two reports are companion pieces to the annual State of Voluntary Carbon Markets report, which was featured in episode 14 of the Bionic Planet podcast, which is co-produced by Ecosystem Marketplace publisher Forest Trends. You can access that on iTunesTuneInStitcher, or listen directly on this device here:

We’ll be harvesting findings from both reports to develop articles between now and the end of the year, but for now let’s begin with these four common (and easily-debunked) myths, adapted from page 18 of the buyers’s report, which you can read in its entirety here: Unlocking Potential/State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2017: Buyers’ Analysis.

MYTH 1: Companies that buy offsets are just buying their way out of their obligations.

Our research shows the opposite: namely, companies are purchasing offsets as one of many ways to fulfill their carbon reduction obligations. Those companies that do buy offsets are doing so as part of an overall carbon management strategy and they mostly use offsets to tackle emissions they can’t eliminate internally. Some companies, like Disney and Microsoft, have created an internal “price on carbon,” where the company charges itself for every ton of carbon it produces and uses that income to purchase offsets. The idea is that incorporating carbon into the company’s bottom line will focus attention on emissions and accelerate reductions.

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MYTH 2: Offsets don’t represent real reductions.

In the early days of carbon markets in the early 2000’s, voluntary offset quality was a mixed bag—some projects were well-planned and some were not. A few unscrupulous “carbon cowboys” made headlines after their offsets were found to be double-counted or illegitimate. But carbon markets have come a long way since then. Carbon standards require developers to demonstrate that their emissions are:

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MYTH 3: Offsetting barely makes a dent—it’s not sufficient for the large-scale change we need.

This one might be sort of true, but that’s because offsets are designed to be part of an overall reduction strategy and not a substitute for one. Companies surveyed in the report typically offset less than 2% of their total emissions, usually because they’re using offsets to compensate for just one segment of that total, like employee travel or the carbon footprint of a single product. Even the small percentage, however, represents a tangible impact on the climate. As more companies sign on to initiatives like the Science Based Targets or the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), the percentage of emissions they offset may go up.

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MYTH 4: Offsetting is niche or arcane.

A lot of prominent brands use offsetting, including household names like General Motors, Delta Air Lines, and Microsoft, all of whom were among the top five buyers on the voluntary market in 2014.

Of the nearly 2,000 companies who publicly disclosed emissions data to CDP in 2014, 248 (17%) invested in projects to reduce carbon emissions outside of their immediate operations.

Of the 140 MtCO2e in offsets reported to the CDP, companies purchased nearly 40 MtCO2e (with the remaining companies either producing offsets for sale externally or offsetting internally within their suppy chain). This is equal to the carbon sequestered by 1 billion tree seedlings grown over 10 years.

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