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To offset or not offset?

I often get asked about carbon offsetting. Is offsetting your carbon footprint a good idea and does it make you climate neutral? These are questions that are by no means simple to answer.

The kind of carbon emission offsetting most often talked about concerns supporting projects for renewable energy in developing countries. The thinking is that this renewable energy will replace fossil fuels and reduce emissions and that this reduction will offset emissions that occur elsewhere. This can concern planting trees or reducing emissions of greenhouse gases from landfill sites or industrial processes.

These are often good projects that lead to increased production of renewable energy or reduced emissions. They can also contribute to technology transfer, increased learning and employment, which in turn, can lead to new projects.

However, the question remains as to whether such projects always do lead to reduced emissions. It can be the case, for example, that investments in wind turbines or solar cells would have been made anyway. Nor can we be entirely sure that they really will replace fossil fuels. It can perhaps be the case that this new renewable energy is used alongside old fossil fuel power stations. Per se, it can be good to gain access to more electricity production capacity in this way, but actual emissions would not of course, have been reduced.

I therefore think the use of terms such as climate neutral when adopting this type of carbon offsetting is questionable. Occasionally, a discussion arises as to whether Sweden ought to invest more resources in international projects rather than in measures in Sweden. There can be good reasons to increase such international investments, i.e. to enable more carbon offsetting, but I think there should be a discussion as to whether or not these investments actually do lead to lower emissions and if there are risks of some negative social impact and if they genuinely can replace measures in Sweden.

It is similarly problematical that the long-term strategy of the international aviation industry to use carbon offsetting to keep emissions down. Here too, we need to ask if emissions are actually reducing.

I think we need to invest more in processes that actual remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and maintain this for longer periods of time. This can be a matter of the capture and geological storage of carbon dioxide or the production of biocarbon for use as a soil improving agent. If such types of carbon offsetting are used, I think it is reasonable to talk about being climate neutral. These kinds of carbon offsetting are available today but they are expensive compared to traditional carbon offsetting. However, not unreasonably expensive in relation to the financial damage that carbon dioxide emissions cause.

Tip of the week: Listen to Sverker Sörlin and try the sustainability pub night for younger researchers and doctoral students. Register here.