What are carbon offsets?

Carbon offsets are a misnomer in the sense that they are actually referring to the offsetting of greenhouse gas emissions, the most common of which is carbon dioxide.  As such a carbon offset is used as a shorthand term.  It’s important to therefore understand what greenhouse gases are and what that actually means.

Explaining greenhouse gases

The ‘greenhouse gases’ are essentially the atmosphere around Earth that insulates the planet and is one of the requirements for life to even exist.  If they disappeared the climate on average would be about 33 °C cooler.  

The issue is that our activities as a species are adding more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, in particular CO2 (carbon dioxide).  CO2e is another way for greenhouse gas levels to be shown, and stands for carbon dioxide equivalent, it’s a representation of all the gases.  

This increase in concentration is correlated with increasing the global temperature.  This is why the phrase Global Warming is often used.  This is a problem, even a few degrees of warming causes huge changes that we are already seeing.  In particular extreme weather, changing climates and positive feedback loops that accelerate even more warming.  We are now facing a climate change emergency and the world’s average temperature has increased by 1.5 degrees from pre-industrial levels.

Carbon offsets are therefore really important to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What exactly is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting broadly refers to activities that remove CO2e from the atmosphere.  Some of the most common examples include planting trees and switching to renewable energy sources. Another term that’s often used is carbon sequestration – this refers to long term storage of carbon.  This storage can take place in plants, soil or in geologic formations and even within the ocean. A lot of projects are focussed on increasing the rate of carbon sequestration through land use projects and forestry management.

The reason renewable energy sources are often seen as offsets is that they displace the fossil fuel driven equivalents of energy production such as coal and oil and natural gas based power plants.  Therefore there are two primary carbon offsets.  One is increasing storage of CO2e (e.g. afforestation), and the other is a reduction in CO2e emissions (e.g. displacement of coal by solar energy).

Carbon offsets occur naturally, but there is a growing industry to facilitate offsets above and beyond the norm, this is to counteract our continued increases in greenhouse gases across the planet. Carbon offsets can be bought, for example through the Future Neutral app that allows carbon offset at checkout for customers.