Greenwash or necessity: What role does carbon offsetting play in reaching net-zero?

Businesses cited credit quality and a lack of regulation and transparency as major barriers to carbon credit spending

That was one of the key discussion points among speakers taking part in edie’s most recent webinar, entitled: ‘Climate activism: Redefining business engagement to help reach net-zero’.

Held on 5 November and now available to watch on-demand, the hour-long, interactive webinar gave viewers the chance to ask representatives from the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), ITV, the International Airlines Group (IAG) their most pressing questions on aligning business purpose with climate activism.


The webinar, sponsored by EDF Energy, also gave speakers the chance to highlight how their organisations have evolved over 12 months of heightened climate awareness, driven by the climate strikes that have occupied cities across all corners of the globe.

Flight of fancy or credible solution?

During the Q&A proportion of the webinar, edie’s content editor, Matt Mace, chairing, noted that carbon offsetting was the most common theme raised by viewers for the panel of speakers. Several NGOs offering carbon offsets have reportedly experienced a fourfold increase in investment over the past two years, with purchases coming from individuals and businesses alike.

This growth in interest is being attributed to the implementation of ever-more net-zero legislation by nations and the growing climate activism movement among the general public, with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg having made a string of vocal calls to action over some of the world’s most-emitting sectors including transport and heavy industry in recent months.

But many green groups continue to be sceptical about the true impact of carbon offsetting, with questions around issues such as the double-counting of carbon offsets and how the projects they support are tackling a broader range of environmental and social challenges being raised regularly. Moreover, the sentiment that companies can simply “buy their way” to net-zero without minimising their carbon footprint is persistent amid broadly weak carbon pricing.

These concerns have been thrown time and again at the aviation sector, which is responsible for 2% of global emissions and is predicted to grow exponentially before technologies such as fully-electric aircraft are industrialised. Responding to these points, IAG’s group sustainability manager Carrie Harris said her organisation would always prioritise in-sector emissions reductions through new aircraft design, operational efficiency and innovative fuels over offsetting.

“For us, it’s key to make sure that we’re using very high-environmental-integrity offsets; that means they’re permanent, they avoid leakage, they’re additional and there’s no double-counting associated with them,” Harris said.

“Contrary to what many people might think, we don’t actually want cheap carbon pricing through carbon offsetting. That price mechanism needs to be effective in order to drive long-term decarbonisation.”

IAG’s way of ensuring “very robust” offsets, Harris said, is by working with CORSIA – the industry-wide programme aimed at mitigating 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2e emissions between 2021 and 2035, largely through offsetting.

‘Not the endgame’

Similarly to IAG’s approach, ITV’s senior manager of social purpose Julia Giannini explained that the broadcaster’s new sustainability strategy does not position offsetting as the “long-term endgame”.

In order to achieve carbon-neutrality, ITV purchased carbon offsets for the first time in 2018. For Giannini, this move enabled the company to “do something straight away” while it continued to “develop the strategies needed to understand how [it] embeds” net-zero across policies regarding hard-to-abate areas such as transport and logistics.

Giannini maintained that ITV’s key priority going forward will be to develop and gain approval for its 1.5C-aligned science-based targets – an activity she believes will reduce the long-term costs of decarbonisation. 

UKGBC’s chief executive Julie Hirigoyen praised this approach, urging listeners to use carbon offsetting as “the very last step in a hierarchy of priorities”. Her organisation is notably striving to help its 400+ members achieve net-zero carbon for operational energy by 2030 and to make all of their buildings truly net-zero by 2050, with particular focus areas at present being embodied carbon and biodiversity net-gain.

“That said, we know that today, it’s very difficult – if not impossible – to create a net-zero carbon whole-life building in its own right,” Hirigoyen added. “The importance is in ensuring that [offsets] are very high-quality, avoiding double counting and demonstrating additionality.”

Hirigoyen added that she would like to see more companies in the built environment sector – developers in particular – exploring offsets which invest in carbon reduction and energy efficiency projects in the communities surrounding their projects. This framework, she argued, could better address issues such as fuel poverty and local climate adaptation than funding projects abroad.

These comments come at a time when 10.9% of UK households – or 2.53 million families – are believed to be living in fuel poverty. At the same time, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is warning that the UK’s housing sector is both a key contributor to the nation’s climate footprint and one of its worst-prepared sectors for temperature increases. 

Some things, money can’t buy

EDF Energy’s director of energy solutions Vincent De Rul agreed that offsetting should be the “last option” in any business’s net-zero arsenal, adding that it is likely to become more expensive in the future, as ever-more organisations get involved and as nations legislate for higher carbon pricing.

Indeed, it was pointed out at this year’s The Business Booster summit in Paris that there are not currently enough carbon credits in existence for Amazon to buy its way to net-zero at present – and that, even if there were, the board would likely not give buy-in to do so due to the cost.

But De Rul also urged listeners not to point the finger at SMEs using offsetting to reach net-zero as they flesh out their long-term plan.

“I think that, in some ways, for some businesses which do not have all the ability to implement complex materiality the carbon projects, offsetting can be a way to start a discussion and begin moving towards [net-zero] territory,” he concluded.

“From the point of view of an energy supplier… offsetting is definitely not something that we are promoting. But when a customer wants to start doing something and feels the only way to start is offsetting, then why not, if we can have a proper conversation on what the long-term view is.”

Watch the webinar on-demand here.

edie’s Net-Zero November

This webinar forms part of edie’s Net-Zero November, a month of content and events to inform and inspire sustainability professionals to push towards net-zero. You can read all Net-Zero November content here.

Additionally, if you have a net-zero carbon target, or a commitment to set one, that has recently been announced you can add it to our Mission Possible Pledge Wall here.

edie Staff 

Comments (4)

  1. Keiron Shatwell says:

    If "offsetting" is done properly, for instance I offset my heating oil by supporting the Woodland Trust and Project Seagrass, then it can form a valuable part of the arsenal. Particularly for individual offsetting such as mine (please note I have no choice over heating fuel as we are not on the gas main and ASHP or GSHP are not an option either).

    However there is too much fluff, fog, confusion and misuse of the system currently so it easy, too easy, for a company or organisation to claim they fully offset when in fact it is nothing like and it is an easy way to achieve a marketing goal. We all need to be more cynical and ethical when it comes to offsetting. Asking "have we done everything possible to reduce energy wastage and emissions?" before we offset.

    The problem is we could end up using more energy to offset than we could save thereby actually making the problem worse. it isn’t just about carbon dioxide as water vapour is far more effective a greenhouse gas and it is our voracious appetite for electricity and energy in general that is more the problem than the gas we all exhale with every breath.

  2. Andy Kadir-Buxton says:

    Two industries that would lead to carbon reduction, and need funding are Starlite, a coat of which would make temperature control of buildings neutral, and biochar, which is the only method we have for taking CO2 out of the atmosphere en masse at the moment.

  3. Keiron Shatwell says:

    @Andy – actually we don’t want to take CO2 out of the atmosphere at all simply control the amount. If we remove it plants will die then about 3 weeks later so will we as the food runs out.

    CO2 is actually the gas of life and not a pollutant at all. the 400ppm currently in the atmosphere is less than 1/4 of what it was when the dinosaurs roamed the planet so really it isn’t that high.

  4. Asle Gunnar Frydenlund says:

    I more than most know business want to do their best and in all they do, some of us created our own "sustainability solutions" as far back as 1985. We educated and certified some 1300 European engineers and technical staff in impact-based risk assessment for professional work in a highly dangerous environment. It was based on dynamic and abstract thinking initially, the highly critical knowledge of how to avoid lethal incidents and how to deliver every operation as planned.

    In 1987 "Sustainable and Sustainability" was coined by the UN IPCC Dr Brundtland Commission, an important political "goal for change" the whole world supported initially. It was understood as a "holistic Ikea flatpack solution" with a complicated user manual missing the main tool and some screws. This was a new opportunity to get rich and quick, selling a product you did not see or even fully understood and the Green Industry came down on the market as a Green "avalanche" and thousands were swept away. The "Sustainability Business" model became a way of "counting and reporting dead bodies" instead of "avoiding murders today and prevent it in the future" for the sake of our children.

    We were developing an idea for combined rainforest conservation, national aid and impact investment in 2004, to secure land rights to the indigenous people and begin replanting deforested areas with native species on a plan off agro-forestry. We developed the idea of various types of "offsets" even containing equities, we would sell to business seeking to change own production and operation or simply add to their business records. We would show real and measurable results for all GHG gasses, including all 17 SDG targets and deliver a lucrative result for investors and stakeholders without any "Greenwashing".

    The global sale of "Black Offsets" (my definition) became another easy money agreement between green politicians and the finance industry, greenwashing became BAU and no one asked for measurable SDG results from business, services, products or projects. The 1500 pages "Sustainability and Climate report" from 2005 gave Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and my friend in 2007, the 2015 Paris Agreement was later commented by hundreds of climate scientists we only have another 10 – 12 years to deliver sever changes and by 2030 especially because emission is rapidly increasing also in 2019, 2050 is no longer a positive option in my opinion.

    This is how I have experienced and understood the situation, 1 000 000/One Million species is extinct and even its called "Net-Zero Carbon" we are emitting 28% more and are heading for +3,4C. Last time planet Earth was +2C hotter the sea level was 10 meters higher, adding 30-meter waves from superstorms. Last time all ice was smelted the sea level was 60 meters higher. Last time 60 Tornadoes hit 18 cities, in one area in one day was in the US last year, 387 people and thousands traumatized when also thousands of animals died at a 200 billion-dollar price tag. Last time millions of people went to bed hungry was this year.

    We, engineers, sell knowledge and experience and get paid for measurable results, now we have developed a Measurable Sustainability System for every company, services, project or product become sustainable and guaranteed, I make Lord Kelvin’s words mine:

    "When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind."
    The British physicist, Lord Kelvin

    Together, we can successfully change today’s economic and ecological destructive BAU direction, if you want ethical change and to deliver sustainable transformation to your customers.
    It’s easy, it’s ethical, it’s lucrative and it is Sustainability

    Thank you


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