Carbon offsets: Time to consign them to history

by the Spherics Team
George Sandilands

You've no doubt heard conflicting opinions about carbon offsetting. Some call it greenwashing, a distraction from directly reducing our carbon emissions. Some say it offers a more accessible form of climate action and funds important projects. So what's really going on here? Our CEO George Sandilands explores why it's ultimately one of the least effective forms of climate action.

What is carbon offsetting 

There are two ways you can take climate action. The first is carbon reduction, where you directly reduce your carbon emissions at the source. This includes things like switching to a green energy provider, or cycling instead of driving a petrol car. Or just plain stopping doing high emitting activities like eating meat or flying. Here are our top 5 tips for SMEs. 

The second is carbon offsetting. Here you carry on emitting carbon but, in theory, cancel out the damage by paying for projects elsewhere that capture it from the air. The last time you booked a flight, for example, you may have been able to pay for trees to be planted.

Carbon offsetting comes in many forms: from protecting forests and financing wind farms, to investing in technology that directly captures carbon from the air – also known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Nearly 40 million tons of emission offsets were bought globally in the first quarter of 2021. Now you can “fly carbon neutral” with BA, or even pay BP to fund things like forest protection and clean energy projects.

The perceived upsides to carbon offsetting

We're not going to stop the climate crisis if we don't protect and restore the ecosystems that absorb carbon from the air. In theory, the most common offset projects do this. But as we'll see, the emphasis is on 'in theory'.

Offsetting may also remind people of the climate crisis and the challenge at hand. It may even help citizens and businesses to think twice about flying, for example, if they're confronted by the choice of paying extra or feeling guilty.

It's a more accessible form of climate action because often carbon reductions come with significant cost barriers. Easier ways of directly reducing your emissions – like your employees cycling to work – likely don't reduce emissions enough to make a dent on the commercial contribution from business products and services, but every little helps!

When it comes to flying, some argue offsets are the only thing that will limit the environmental damage (perhaps along with travelling in economy class – marginally gentler on the climate than business class). But taking the train or meeting online would make a far larger dent. 

Some suggest that creating a commodity out of carbon extracted from the air will encourage the money to “flow from the emitters to the fixers”. This is the theory behind the former governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney’s new carbon offset market.

Now, I need to caveat that, of course, we need trees planted at a monumental scale. Any new carbon sinks (in the right regions) are of great use to society. However in order to achieve this scale, it needs to be governments, not private citizens or businesses who manage these forestation, paid for via taxation. Managed at this level they can build in decades, or century long forestry management plans. Even the most “Gold Standard” schemes miss a critical point in my academic analysis.

There is no guarantee that they will be there in 20 years.

Here are some of the challenges; 

Trees are a fragile form of carbon storage

New trees can take as long as 20 years to absorb the amount of carbon the offset project promised they would. In that time they may be cut down, die in a drought or wildfire, or get taken out by a disease.

And when trees die, they go from storing carbon to releasing it, either by rotting or burning. This happened to Coldplay when they planted mango trees in India to offset their 2002 album, only to see nearly half of them die about four years later.

The world's forests keep the atmosphere stable and are a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change. But because trees planted by offsets risk becoming carbon sources, they're no match against the safer alternative: keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

Lack of quality control

Currently the carbon offset market is unregulated. This means a lot of offset businesses get away with scamming consumers with projects that don't do what they say on the tin – i.e. not capturing as much carbon as they promise – or don't exist at all. 

As reported in the Financial Times, 65 certified projects were looked into for beer company BrewDog and just five were found to be any good. The same piece reports Mark Carney saying the market “operates in the shadows”, with some good “but lots of bad”.

There are certification bodies out there, like Verra and Gold Standard, trying to bring the wild west of carbon offsets under control. But they haven't yet had a great deal of success, and concerns about quality are still lingering.

All this deregulation means that companies can get away with a lot of greenwashing – bloated claims about reduced carbon footprints and environmental protection – especially when so many of these offset projects have been verified.

No match for direct emissions cuts

As we've seen, trees are at risk of turning into carbon sources if not protected or managed to completion properly. But even if all offset projects absorbed as much carbon as planned, there are just not enough carbon sinks in the world to clean up our clogged up atmosphere.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested 950 million hectares of new forest could help keep the planet's temperature to no more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

To get a sense of how much forest that is, the entire US is about 980 million hectares. The fast disappearing Amazon rainforest? 550 million hectares. Perhaps it's better to first protect that ancient carbon sink before we start finding space for a new one.

But talk of planting forests to halt climate change without cutting emissions misses another stark fact: Even if we created enough carbon sinks to stop climate change, we'll have to stop emitting once they're full. There's only so much earth on which to plant trees.

An easy way out at the expense of the people and planet

Beyond the ineffectiveness that plagues carbon offsetting there is also the concern, aired by carbon emissions consultant Mike Berners-Lee, that just talking about carbon offsetting as legitimate climate action undermines efforts to directly cut carbon emissions. 

We echo these concerns. There are a lot of businesses selling tree planting that give organisations the impression that this will suitably make their environmental impact “go away”. 

And to make things worse, many offsetting projects happen in poorer nations, where there is more land available for rainforests or wind turbines. This often results in evictions or food scarcity, all while richer nations carry on with business-as-usual.  

This is why we have taken the stance to avoid offsetting terminology, deprioritise offsetting functionality within our own product roadmap and to use our resources to support businesses with tangible net zero plans. 

Are there any ways to improve carbon offsetting? 

It looks like carbon offsetting is going to be around for a while and, like we said, it can be a more accessible and immediate form of climate action when effective forms of direct emissions reduction are unaffordable. So can we make them better?


One solution is to find ways to make sure projects take out more carbon from the atmosphere than would have happened without them - a concept called 'additionality'.

Funding a solar farm that is already being built, for example, may help improve its chances of success. But it probably would have been built anyway, so buying the offset wouldn't result in any additional emission reductions.

If you fund a project protecting a forest, only to discover there was no obvious threat to the trees' survival in the first place, then your offset had no additionality. But if it's sure to stop a section of forest from being cut down, then you've saved the associated emissions.


Another way out of the carbon offsetting quagmire is to ensure all projects have a high likelihood of permanent carbon withdrawal. There's no point in funding the planting of thousands of trees if there's a good chance they'll go up in flames years later. 

Without proper regulation, however, these solutions are unlikely to permeate the whole carbon offset world. Mark Carney's new market aims to bring order to the chaos, with better rules that win back some trust. But the fact remains: even at their best, carbon offsets are not enough.

Spherics’ recommendation? Take offsetting off the table. Focus on reducing.

As we've seen, offsetting is a messy, ineffective, and even harmful way of taking climate action. It means we still pour emissions into the air while using a faulty tool to cancel out the impacts. By far the simpler, more effective method is to reduce emissions in the first place.

At Spherics we focus on encouraging carbon reduction by supporting behaviour change with trustworthy data. It's a good idea to first understand the size of your carbon footprint so you can plan for the most appropriate forms of reduction. 

Connect your accounting tool to our accurate and affordable carbon accountability software and you'll be able to measure your emissions in just a few clicks.

About Spherics

Spherics is an award winning carbon accounting software helping businesses measure and reduce their carbon emissions, in minutes, from as little as £9pm. 

We have two solutions, one for SMEs and one for larger enterprise businesses looking to better understand their supply chain carbon footprint / scope 3 carbon emmissions.

For information on our SME carbon accounting software click here.

For more information on our Enterprise solution click here. 



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