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Why Ducky doesn’t sell carbon offsets

It’s a simple business model: help people calculate their carbon footprint, and then sell them offsets to mitigate it. For Ducky, it’s an obvious way to turn our detailed footprint calculator into a revenue stream. So why don’t we?

For many individuals and companies, it’s impossible to reduce your footprint to zero in the short-term. Buying carbon offsets is an obvious pathway to reach the elusive net-zero target, and as many companies pledge to go net-zero, what they actually mean is they are going to purchase a lot of offsets. You’ve also might have seen them as an option when you buy plane tickets. But can you really compensate for a long-haul flight with the click of a button?

When you’re buying a carbon offset, you’re paying for someone to reduce emissions on your behalf. The idea is that it doesn’t matter where emissions are reduced, as long as they are actually going down. The reductions usually occur through some sort of project, like regrowing deforested areas, installing sustainable electricity sources in third world countries, or mitigating emissions from industrial plants. By paying the highest bidder to reduce emissions, carbon offsets create a market approach to tackling greenhouse gas emissions. 

This sounds great, but offsets can be a touchy subject and even spawn ire. According to Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research: “Offsetting is worse than doing nothing”. 

Ducky takes the stance that carbon offsets should be the absolute last resort. Only after an individual or company has done everything else to reduce their impact on the environment should they start investigating carbon offsets. This is because there are many possible pitfalls in carbon offset sales, and carbon offset sales distract corporations from solving issues closer to home by pushing the responsibility to other parties. 

Let’s dig into some of the challenges with carbon offsetting.

Although there are carbon offset certifications (such as Gold Standard, Climate Action Reserve, or Verified Carbon Standard), the market simply isn’t well regulated. You have to have quite a bit of knowledge, or identify a trusted party, to be able to rigorously verify that the carbon offsets you’re purchasing are doing what they claim. 

The Carbon Offsets Guide provides a list of criteria for high-quality carbon offsets, but each of the criteria has its own set of pitfalls:

  • Additionality. You have to verify that reduction in emissions could not have taken place if it weren’t for the sale of offsets. It can be difficult to prove that the project wouldn’t have gone on without the additional funding of offset sales, typically requiring some in-depth analysis. Projects that don’t qualify as additional would be reductions that are required by law, or that are economically viable in their own right, as is the case with many projects that reduce electricity usage. 

  • Permanence. The emissions avoided by the offsets have to stay out of the atmosphere, essentially forever (from the carbon accounting perspective we usually consider a 100 year timeframe). This means for example that a project reducing emission by planting trees would have to guarantee that the trees won’t be cut down in the next 100 years - something that can be quite difficult.

  • Exclusive claims (or avoiding double-counting). If a factory or country sells emissions reductions, they can no longer claim these emissions reductions in their overall carbon accounting. Otherwise they’re being counted as reductions by both the purchaser and the seller. This may seem obvious, but it was the subject of some debate during COP27 - and luckily there’s now an agreement to ban double counting, although it could be difficult to regulate. There’s also nothing stopping two projects claiming responsibility for the same reductions. 

  • Avoiding overestimation. Actually calculating how much carbon emissions a project reduces or avoids can be difficult. Often you wouldn’t know the number until many years later, so you have to operate with estimates or ranges of carbon offset. 

  • Carbon leakages. In addition, you have to be sure that a reduction in emissions in one place doesn’t cause an increase in another - for example preserving one area of forest might lead to another being cut down.

All of these criteria means that good carbon offset projects are hard to come by, but not impossible to find. Let's examine the key components of a good example. Factories that make nitric acid, a key component in synthetic fertilizers for agriculture, produce nitrous oxide as a byproduct. If nitrous oxide is released directly to the atmosphere, it’s a potent greenhouse gas, so much so that it's the third largest contributor to climate change (behind carbon dioxide and methane). 

Luckily it’s (relatively) cheap to install various kinds of technology that either reduce the amount of nitrous oxide produced in nitric acid production, or decompose it to nitrogen and oxygen. If a factory sells carbon offsets to finance installing such a technology, it’s easy to meet most of the criteria: the emissions are avoided forever since the gas is destroyed (permanence), it’s easy to count how much you got rid of (avoiding overestimation), and as long as the money from the offsets is instrumental in the factory installing nitrous oxide removal equipments, additionality is fulfilled.

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Most carbon offset projects aren’t this singularly positive, and often the ones that sound simple and appealing, like preserving areas of forest, are the murkiest. A recent analysis found that 90% of rainforest carbon offsets sold by Verra were “phantom credits”, representing no real world reduction. On the darker side, there are even cases of offset schemes leading to indigenous groups being evicted from portions of their native land being purchased for offsetting. There’s also been some unfortunate cases of companies deliberately manufacturing more greenhouse gasses that they can then get paid to destroy. So not only are carbon offsets difficult to verify - the system is repeatedly being cheated. 

In addition to the challenges with verifying carbon offsets, arguably selling them at all decreases impetus for technological innovation. Why should a factory clean up their act if they can just buy carbon offsets to nullify their emissions accounting? In the same way, why should an individual change their behavior if they can just buy a clean conscience? George Monbiot has even compared selling carbon offsets to the Catholic Church’s selling of absolutions in the 16th century.

In summary, carbon offsets can be a good way of putting your money where your mouth is, if the projects you fund actually reduce emissions in the way they claim. However, it’s important to carefully verify that said projects actually ARE doing good, and this simply isn’t easy. Unless you’re excited to dig into the rabbit hole of carbon offset verifications and projects, we’d recommend that you focus your time and energy on ways of reducing your personal footprint, be it learning to cook delicious vegetarian food or making exciting vacation plans in exotic destinations close to home. 

But if you’re sitting with your finger on the offset purchase button to compensate for your next plane trip, it might be just as well to donate that extra cash to a charity you know and trust, so that the best of intentions don’t go astray. Lastly, next time you hear a company pledging to go net-zero, remember to ask them how much they’re actually doing to reduce their footprint - and how much they’re paying someone else to reduce it on their behalf.

If you'd like to dig into the subject a little further, check out the episode of Planet Money on NPR, "Emission Impossible", where they explore the difficulties around offsetting in a little more detail. 

If you do need to choose a carbon offsets program, we're firm believers that you need to do the research and understand the options yourself. As such, we're not going to list recommended projects. Instead, check out this carbon offsets guide on the questions you need to be asking when choosing a high quality offsets project.

About Molly Bazilchuk

Molly Bazilchuk is a Climate Footprint Analyst by day, and an ultrarunner, skier and dog and baby mom by night. She holds a master's in Nanoeletronics and a PhD in Nanomechanics, both from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. After working with product development of electronic materials, she decided to use her talents for good and began working with all things footprint calculator in Ducky in 2020.