Carbon offsetting is a system where countries with emissions reduction targets, rather than taking action to reduce their own emissions, pay for projects in other countries to reduce emissions instead.

The theory behind offsetting is that it doesn't matter where emissions reductions take place, as long as they do. However, it is very difficult to prove that carbon offsetting generates net reductions. Offsetting schemes also cause significant social and environmental problems. It is an escape hatch for countries and companies to avoid making urgently needed emissions reductions.

Cuts in greenhouse gases need to take place in all major-emitting countries in order to successfully tackle climate change. Offsetting delays the urgent domestic changes which are necessary in developed countries. It can lock-in high carbon infrastructure, making the later transition far more difficult and expensive.

The right to pollute

A further problem is that of additionality. It is impossible to show that emissions reductions through offsetting projects would not have taken place anyway. Without this guarantee the net effect is that greenhouse gas emissions increase, because offset credits allow developed countries to continue to pollute. Even if projects are additional, it is difficult to know how much carbon has been saved, because it is judged against a hypothetical future, which cannot be verified.

Carbon offsetting is fraught with scandals. There is a perverse incentive to produce extra emissions in order to get paid for reducing them. Some industries in developing countries are deliberately increasing the production of greenhouse gases thousands of times more powerful than CO2, only to destroy them and receive millions of euros in payments.

Beyond such frequent scandals, offsetting projects are often used to subsidise small improvements in fossil fuel power stations and carbon-intensive industry, rather than a genuine move to a low-carbon economy.

Offsetting allows industrialised countries to continue using the little remaining atmospheric space available, denying developing countries the right to use this to develop and bring their populations out of poverty.

Real solutions

For these reasons, Friends of the Earth Europe opposes all forms of offsetting.

We are campaigning for the EU and national governments to make genuine emission cuts at home and to invest in real solutions to the climate crisis.