Are carbon offsets a legitimate way to achieve Net Zero?

Marley Flueger

The Challenges and Potential of Carbon Reduction and Removal

Net zero commitments are on the rise. Currently, 59 countries and one-fifth of the world’s largest companies have pledged decarbonization efforts aligned with Paris Agreement goals. And global carbon offset markets are growing at dizzying rates.

But carbon offsets are far from perfect. At best, they help us compensate for the emissions we can’t eliminate yet by funding promising climate solutions. At worst, they exacerbate the crisis, serving as a “feel good” moral pass while continuing to pollute as usual.

Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is our best shot at securing a livable future. In the Net Zero by 2050 Roadmap, the International Energy Agency (IEA) lays out 400 key milestones for humanity to reach this critical goal. Among them, it notes that both behavioral changes and carbon capture and storage will be important pieces of the puzzle.

We can be part of supporting carbon reduction and removal solutions. But if offsets are to play a meaningful role in the transition to net zero, we need to understand their pitfalls, and work to reshape them in favor of our long-term vision.

Before You Read: There’s a lot of unique vocabulary associated with carbon offsets. Explore the glossary of common terms at the bottom of this post if you could use a quick primer.

The Obstacles: Valid Concerns About Carbon Offsets

To understand the promise of carbon offsets, we need to be honest about their risks and concerns.

1. Offsetting Can Be Used as a License to Pollute

We can’t offset our way to net zero. We need to actually reduce our emissions by making our systems more efficient and moving off of fossil fuels.The biggest critique of carbon offsets is that they impede actual emissions reduction.

Major companies, for example, may offset their emissions to appease public demands for climate action. This creates the illusion of decarbonization without requiring them to actually fix their dirty practices. Let’s be clear: this is not real change.

Offsets can create moral hazard for regular people, too. If buying carbon offsets causes us to feel less accountable for how our lifestyles contribute to the climate crisis, they can be problematic, by offering those who can afford it the license to continue to live high-carbon lifestyles.

The bottom line? Offsets without accountability are dangerous.

2. Carbon Offsets Can Perpetuate Unjust Systems

Poor and vulnerable populations suffer disproportionately from the effects of the climate crisis. Simply removing emissions from the air - and even achieving net zero - won’t erase systemic inequity.

When companies “neutralize” their emissions without fundamentally changing their practices, communities in the crosshairs can continue to suffer. Companies and people need to not only consider opportunities to reduce their emissions, but also ways to support the people and ecosystems who are suffering most from negative climate impacts.

Furthermore, if we fund offset projects without considering local impact, we risk excluding or exploiting people with less power to achieve our climate goals. It is critical to consider equity and justice elements of carbon offset projects. At Joro, community benefits are a critical part of how we evaluate offset projects.

We need to prioritize projects that don't just reduce or remove emissions, but also help shape a just and sustainable future for all life to thrive.

3. Carbon Offsets Are Hard to Verify

The carbon offset market is poorly regulated and lacks standardization. That’s why we continue to hear horror stories of well-funded projects exposed for faulty climate claims.

Take California’s forest offset program, for instance. The initiative produces millions of carbon credits for the state’s cap and trade market; but analysis suggests they’re of questionable value.

Critics say the California program overstates the true sequestration capabilities of numerous forest plots. And several forests don’t remove “additional” emissions – they were neither at risk being cut down nor managed under new practices to increase their carbon storage.

Offset projects need to actually reduce or remove the carbon they say they do. (With forestry projects, for instance, the trees need to be maintained and cultivated over time.) Otherwise, polluters pay for their emissions, but greenhouse gasses continue to build up in the atmosphere. In other words: the offsets themselves are doing damage.

Another element to the problem is that different offset types require different verification approaches. Methodologies we use to assess forestry projects won’t work for soil regeneration or direct air capture. In a poorly regulated market, that makes it even harder to standardize effective means of evaluation.

To fix problems like these, we need smarter verification approaches and policies to manage offset markets. In the meantime, we need thorough processes to determine the legitimacy of individual offsets. That’s why we work with our expert advisory board to constantly improve how we select Joro’s featured projects.

What We Need: Effective Strategies to Support Carbon Reduction & Removal

1. Frame Offsetting as an Incentive to Reduce

Offsets shouldn’t be treated as substitutes for climate action, but rather as part of a process of measuring and incentivizing emissions reduction. We need to remove existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, but those efforts won’t matter if we continue to emit at current levels. That’s why individual, corporate, and country-wide net zero strategies must be centered around accountability.

Create Accountability with Tracking

You can manage what you measure. That’s why tracking your carbon footprint is the first step towards living more sustainably. When you link your cards to Joro, we automatically estimate the emissions produced when you shop. Rather than paying a flat fee, our monthly offsets are linked to your actual impact. And when your emissions drop, your fee does, too! – creating a positive cycle of accountability.

Incentivize Reduction with Effective Pricing

Offsetting should be used to compensate for emissions that we can’t yet reduce. Setting an appropriate price for carbon, and raising it over time, is part of an effective decarbonization strategy. At their best, offsets highlight the most effective opportunities to live more sustainably by modifying our choices. Joro scans your spending to create a map of your carbon footprint, helping you identify the choices that matter most. Then, we offer tips, tools, and resources to help you improve.

Use Offsets to Tackle Unavoidable Emissions

While we live in a fossil-fueled society, none of us can reduce our footprints to zero. That’s why we created the Net Zero Membership: to offset the parts of your footprint you can’t change yet. In the near term, while we live in a fossil-fueled society, this is an important action to create demand for effective carbon projects.

2. Distribute Risk with a Portfolio Approach

You wouldn’t bet your life savings on a single stock; you shouldn’t bet your offset dollars on a single project, either. To maximize our chances of reaching net zero by 2050, we need to invest in a basket of climate solutions.

Different offset types have different risk and return timelines. Over the next 30 years, we’ll need to balance cost-efficient, proven technologies that reduce emissions now with pricier, more innovative, more durable sequestration. Following the Oxford Principles for net-zero aligned offsetting, Joro uses a portfolio approach to maximize the collective impact of our offset dollars.

Companies at the forefront of carbon removal hedge their bets in a similar manner. And Joro’s Carbon Portfolio makes this high-impact approach available to regular people. As a Net Zero member, you’ll automatically support this rigorously-vetted collection of powerful offset projects. You can read more about how we put together the portfolio here.  

3. Evaluate Projects for Carbon Integrity

All offsets are not created equal. And funding ones that don’t remove the CO2e they claim can actually exacerbate the climate crisis. As offset skeptics, we conduct our own meticulous research, consult third-party evaluations, and engage with experts to ensure Joro’s featured projects actually reduce and remove the carbon they claim to.

We evaluate the integrity of our featured projects using five criteria:

  • Verifiability: A project must demonstrate strong evidence that GHG reduction the project is responsible for would not have been achieved in a business as usual scenario.
  • Enforceability: The offset vendor must provide evidence that the carbon credits issued from a project are sold once and retired. Credits must be backed by a contract that defines exclusive ownership.
  • Additionality: A project must demonstrate strong evidence that it is not taking credit for carbon reduction or removal that would have happened already, without the project.
  • Permanence: To stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, long-term carbon removal and storage is critical. Joro is curating a selection of projects that balance short-term and long-term carbon storage.
  • Transparency: We seek to work with partners that demonstrate transparency in fee structure and operational efficiency.

Learn more about Joro’s offset selection process.

4. Prioritize Projects With Transformative Potential

Addressing the climate crisis will require radical transformation of the world as we know it. And it’s not as straightforward as tackling emissions.

It’s critical that as we transition to a greener economy, we also transition to a more just economy. Climate change is driven by an economic system of exploitation, extraction, and dispossession; and this same system makes socially- and economically-disadvantaged communities more vulnerable to its effects.

We can’t fix climate change unless we fix the entire system. Otherwise, our “fixes” will perpetuate systems of injustice for the wellbeing of the few. That’s why we need to support offset projects that go beyond simply tackling greenhouse gas.

At Joro, we prioritize projects with transformative potential. By that, we mean projects that help create the just, healthy, and sustainable future we aspire towards.

We evaluate the transformative potential of our featured projects using five criteria:

  • Efficiency: We aim to support a more efficient and direct market for offsets. Joro favors options that provide a higher percent of overall cost to project owners.
  • Scalability: We favor scalable projects that can lower global emissions by at least 1 gigaton, contributing significantly to reaching net zero by 2050.
  • Catalytic Potential: We prioritize projects that advance innovation, demonstrate replicability, and inspire similar future projects.
  • Ecosystem Benefits: We support projects that create benefits to natural ecosystems beyond carbon, including conservation, biodiversity, and climate adaptation benefits.
  • Community Benefits: The climate crisis presents enormous equity and justice challenges. We prioritize projects that will benefit the poorest and most vulnerable populations who are affected most by changing climates.

Learn more about Joro’s Net Zero projects and transformative potential.

The Scoreboard: Comparing Offset Providers

There are countless offset providers on the voluntary market (that’s where people like you participate). But there’s no official standard or regulation for how providers structure their approach. That means they all do things a little differently.

As you explore different options to offset your carbon footprint, look for providers that:

  1. Use offsets to incentivize reduction;
  2. Distribute risk with a portfolio approach;
  3. Evaluate projects for carbon integrity; and
  4. Prioritize projects with transformative potential.

Here’s how some of the main players stack up:

Glossary: Common Carbon Offset Terms

  • Carbon Offset: A reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere.
  • Carbon Credit: A permit that allows the holder to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases.
  • Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e): A unit of greenhouse gas equivalent to the amount of CO2 that would have the same climate impact over a period of 100 years, as defined by the IPCC.
  • Carbon Footprint: The amount of greenhouse gases emitted from a specific activity or from a person’s activities during a given period of time.
  • Carbon Removal: The process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it away for decades, centuries, or even millennia.
  • Direct Air Capture: A process that captures CO2 from ambient air, removing it from the atmosphere.
  • Additionality: GHG reductions that would not have occurred in the absence of a market for offset credits.
  • Enforceability: The emission reduction of an offset project is backed by a legal instrument or contract that defines exclusive ownership.
  • Leakage: A phenomenon in which efforts to reduce emissions in one place lead to an increase in emissions in another location or sector.

Make the Most of Your Offset Dollars

Offsetting can play a meaningful role in the transition to a zero emission society, but it can’t be our only solution. To reverse the climate crisis, the world needs to rapidly shift away from fossil fuels – for good.

As a society, we need to understand and work to develop legitimate solutions for the pitfalls of carbon offsetting. As people, it’s important to educate ourselves and scrutinize the solutions we support, while making lifestyle changes to reduce our individual impact.

With Joro’s Net Zero Membership, you’ll neutralize your personal carbon footprint while funding effective offsets. Joro does the work, so you don’t have to - and so you can spend your time working on other pathways to climate action.

Explore more details on the projects you’ll support – and start your net zero life today.

A climate action practice is the daily exercise of bringing awareness and intention to reduce the carbon emissions within your control.

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