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Carbon Offsetting – Cheating Or Not?

“Companies buy carbon credits from you and can continue polluting. Carbon offsetting is cheating and making things worse for the climate” said a climate activist in a message to carbon management company Ekos.

As world governments negotiate our climate future at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, many in the private sector are going net zero carbon. So is carbon offsetting cheating or is it a good thing for the climate and the economy?

Ekos founder and CEO Dr Sean Weaver explains that carbon offsetting means buying carbon credits to compensate for pollution that you cannot eliminate. “Even the most committed business can only reduce their carbon pollution by a certain amount because lots of emissions are impossible or prohibitively expensive to get rid of,” Weaver said.

Voluntary carbon offsetting is a way for businesses to compensate for the emissions they could not eliminate by purchasing carbon credits and going net zero carbon or carbon neutral. According to Weaver this has a number of benefits.

“By purchasing carbon credits to match their emissions, these businesses are voluntarily pricing and paying for their remaining pollution. This creates a strong incentive to continue driving down their emissions to reduce their exposure to this cost. For this to work carbon credit prices need to be high enough to send a meaningful price signal – and the $65 NZU spot price is starting to do this,” Weaver said.

Weaver also pointed out that when the carbon credits come from forest restoration projects, businesses that offset their emissions are helping to fund climate resilient rural landscapes that will cope better with droughts, cyclones and floods, and support our farmers, our waterways and biodiversity conservation.

“We need lots of these forests. Hawkes Bay alone needs about 200,000 hectares planted up in permanent forest to cope with climate change – an area equivalent to 400,000 rugby fields or three times the size of Auckland. The taxpayer simply cannot afford to fund the hundreds of millions of dollars required to do this. But carbon buyers and private investors can,” he said.

“Our farmers are on the climate change front line and those trying to make a living on marginal erosion lands need a viable alternative. Carbon farming is an alternative and can make these farms more profitable overall,” Weaver said.

Weaver also pointed out that reducing carbon emissions is not enough. “We need to take more carbon pollution out of the air than we put in if we are going to avoid dangerous climate change. Forests are made of carbon dioxide, so growing more of them takes more carbon pollution out of the air to feed trees,” he said.

And what about when the trees die or are felled? “This is not about trees, it is about forests and they can live for thousands of years with young trees replacing the old in an on-going cycle. Our native forests have been on our hillsides since before humans invented farming,” Weaver said.

Agricultural soils can also absorb huge amounts of carbon and need to be part of the solution according to Weaver.

So, what about claims that voluntary carbon offsetting is buying a licence to pollute?

“We all already have these licences to pollute. The last time I checked it is not illegal to use electricity, drive, use freight or refrigerants, fly occasionally, and buy things with fossil fuels in their supply chain. Voluntary carbon offsetting is all about taking responsibility for this pollution, and going the extra distance to look after the place at a time when we need it most,” he said.

“We cannot wait for governments to fix the climate problem. They are just too slow. The on-going saga of broken promises coming out of UN climate conferences like the one going on in Glasgow is living proof,” he said.

According to Weaver the private sector needs to play a massive role in transforming to a low carbon economy and does not need to wait for an election mandate. “We are working every day with businesses and landowners and investors that are demonstrating the leadership needed – we just need to work together to keep innovating and scale it up across the economy,” Weaver said.

Dr Sean Weaver is founder and CEO of Ekos. He is pioneering market-based models for climate action and sustainable land management in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. He has consulted to the World Bank, African Development Bank, the Pacific Community, Pacific Island governments, central and local government in New Zealand, as well as businesses, universities and community organisations.

He is a former Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and the University of the South Pacific and has a PhD in Forestry.

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