Tabitha Whiting
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Why business offsetting should never replace cutting emissions (but combining the two can multiply impact)
Why business offsetting should never replace cutting emissions (but combining the two can multiply impact)

July 20, 2022


Company carbon offsetting is often criticised as a climate action.

And it’s right to scrutinise offsetting in a business setting – because it can sometimes be an easy way for companies to appear like they’re doing their bit, whilst actually doing very little for the planet. That’s where greenwashing comes into play.

There are a few common trends by which company carbon offsetting can turn into greenwashing: 

  • Low-quality carbon offset projects are supported
  • There’s a lack of transparency about the process
  • Offsetting is used as a PR and marketing exercise – especially where the impact is overplayed as a green credential
  • The language used is peppered with climate buzzwords and vague or future-focused phrases.

There’s more information on these in our previous post: 5 greenwashing trends to avoid in company carbon offsetting.

Aside from these, one of the most common trends is when carbon offsetting is employed without any sign that the business is working to reduce their own carbon emissions too.

Businesses should address their own carbon footprint first

Offsetting should always be part of a wider sustainability strategy.

And that strategy should always include how you plan to address your own environmental impact as a company, which includes three things:

  • Measuring your carbon footprint
  • Putting plans in place to reduce that carbon footprint
  • Neutralising the remaining emissions though offsetting.

Businesses are responsible for a large portion of carbon emissions, so measuring and reducing your own emissions needs to come first – including scope 3 emissions.

This means that if you can see information on a company’s website or marketing about their company offsetting, you should also be able to find information about their plans to reduce their own carbon footprint too – including actions taken so far, a timeline for future actions, and when they’ll next report on progress.

If you can’t find that information, it’s possible that they’re using offsetting as a symbolic action, a way to publicly draw attention to their good work on climate change, without doing the hard work of truly understanding the environmental impact of the business and taking meaningful action to reduce this. 

Typically, in these cases, the offset credits that are purchased will also be low-quality and therefore have limited meaningful impact for the planet – so you likely won’t be able to find much information about the process or framework behind their offsetting purchases. It’s also common to see tree planting projects in these scenarios, which similarly have very little true impact (or, at least, it’s incredibly difficult to prove if any positive impact is being made).

Unsurprisingly, it’s common to see this kind of offsetting greenwashing in high-emitting industries like oil and gas, meat and dairy, aviation etc. 

The reality is that these are industries that rely on fossil fuels and emissions, and are therefore reluctant to make any real change through robust reductions plans. 

But they also know that consumers are looking for climate-friendly options. 

So, instead these companies want to give the impression that customers can carry on purchasing their products and services, without worrying about the climate impact. Don’t worry about reducing your air travel – you just go ahead, we’ll offset the emissions for you. This way, you could even increase the amount of flights you take, guilt free!

The exception to the rule (kind of)

The one notable exception to this rule is that it is possible to make contributions to carbon offset and removal projects earlier in a company’s climate journey, without greenwashing.

Carbon offsetting as a way to neutralise a company’s own carbon footprint should always come after making plans to reduce these emissions – so evidence of reductions that have been made, or reductions being made in-progress, should be visible.

But there’s a distinction to be made between compensating for your own carbon emissions, and simply opting to make financial contributions to high-quality carbon offset projects as a way to have positive climate impact. 

In fact, since emissions reduction can take a significant amount of time to put into place (measuring your carbon footprint, making plans to reduce it, and putting those plans into action isn’t a quick process) this can actually make a great first step in a company’s climate journey.

That’s because contributing to high-quality projects is a way to make a guaranteed, positive impact as a business. Whether a one-off contribution or a commitment to contribute 1% of your revenue going forward, you’d be instantly supporting the development and implementation of projects that are actively reducing emissions and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. 

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