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Carbon offsetting is not the final solution — Why we need it anyway

We currently emit millions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses. Reduction is expensive for firms and individuals, it thus takes years. Furthermore, we don’t yet know how to reduce CO2 emissions for some central processes. While the transition to net zero is happening, we can use carbon offsetting to mitigate the fatal effects of global warming. Once we reach net zero, we should continue to reduce the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and rebuild habitats that have been destroyed in the past.

Status Quo

In the fourth quarter of 2021 the EU emitted 1 041 million tonnes of CO2-equivalents (CO2e), with the largest contributors being households, manufacturing and electricity. The rising level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere are leading to more extreme weather conditions. Severe environmental events occur almost monthly. Heat waves, droughts, floods, forest fires. The most recent one is the flood in Pakistan. Depending on how much more carbon we add to the atmosphere, the temperature is predicted to increase by 2 to 5 °C by the end of the century. Seeing the effects we already have now, it is hard to imagine what the consequences would be.


Ideally, we will reduce the emissions of greenhouse gasses to zero. The EU set this as its goal by 2050. This means that we need to completely switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies in all sectors. Electricity has to come from photovoltaic systems and wind turbines instead of coal or gas-fired power plants. Cars must be electric or run on green hydrogen and airplanes must use biofuels. Cement must no longer use fossil fuels for the burning process. Every single company and individual has to stop emitting carbon.

Reality check

We are seeing a significant reduction in emissions of greenhouse gasses due to the increasing adoption of renewables and improvements in energy efficiency.

However, we are still far from achieving net-zero. The reduction of greenhouse gasses is always associated with a high investment. For instance switching to electric cars or converting factory buildings is costly. For private individuals, it makes no sense to exchange their still running internal combustion car for a new electric car. Production buildings often have an amortization period (and a depreciation period) of several decades which makes the transition difficult for companies.The changeover is generally a lengthy process. In addition, there are currently no scalable, climate-neutral alternatives for many processes or technologies. Lab grown meat has not yet reached the mass market. We do not have enough land for biofuels, and hydrogen is not a good alternative if it is made from electricity from coal-fired power plants.

The way to Utopia — Carbon Offsetting

Carbon offsetting can help us ease the transition. Our main goal should still be to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses in the first place. But for processes that currently don’t have a feasible carbon neutral alternative, it makes sense to offset their greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. This could be supporting a reforestation project in the Amazon, the planting of mangrove trees in Sri Lanka or direct carbon capture projects. The important part of those offsets is called additionality. A carbon offset is providing additionality, if the project that captures the carbon can only be implemented with the support of other people or companies. Imagine the owner of an electric vehicle selling the carbon that they avoided (by owning the electric vehicle) to the owner of a diesel-powered car to offset their emissions. The bottom line of this example is still not net zero. The diesel engine still emits greenhouse gasses and the electric vehicle is not capturing those. It only avoids further emissions.

How carbon credits should not be used
This deal has no additionality. To be able to sell carbon credits with additionality, you have to reduce the overall carbon, not just shift it!

You think this is a bad example? This is a practice that really exists and there are a multitude of companies that provide it. While it is easy to see in this example, that it has no additionality, it is not that obvious for other examples. That is the reason why we need transparent CO2 offsets!

Net Zero — What then?

“If emissions of CO2 stopped altogether, it would take many thousands of years for atmospheric CO2 to return to “pre-industrial” levels […]”Source

So if we reach net zero by 2050, climate change would not be over from one day to the next. Instead, we and hundreds of generations to come would have to suffer from the effects of global warming that we are already seeing today. And till 2050 those effects will just get bigger.

So in order to return to a pre-industrial level, or at least to a level where century events do not happen annually, we need to reduce the CO2 content in the atmosphere.

However, it is not just about reducing the CO2 level. Immediately stopping to emit carbon will not bring back the destroyed habitat of countless endangered animals.

So even if we were to stop emitting greenhouse gasses immediately, we would still need to reduce the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and re-build habitats to get back to a higher biodiversity.

About Sustaim: At Sustaim we believe that an impactful and trustworthy climate-compensation market is necessary to successfully mitigate the effects of climate change.

We are a German based sustainability company that aims to support organizations that take their net-zero promises seriously. Sustaim offers climate-compensation solutions that generate publicly verifiable impact. Through utilizing both technology and close partnerships, we provide full transparency so that our partners can be sure that their financial efforts actually have an impact on the environment.

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