Carbon offsetting – the new goldrush?

A family use their smokeless stove in north-western Nepal
A family using their Smokeless Metal Stove in Humla District, north-western Nepal. Each stove saves over 6 tonnes CO2 per year, as well as improving health and saving time spent gathering fuel. This project is managed by RIDS Nepal and funded by Climate Stewards.

Caroline Pomeroy of Climate Stewards sets the record straight on carbon offsetting:

Recently the Guardian ran an article[1] entitled “More than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest provider are worthless…”. The article was based on studies showing that more than 90% of rainforest offset credits offered by Verra, the leading global player in the voluntary carbon offset market, are likely to be “phantom credits” and do not represent genuine carbon reductions.

The Guardian article focused on carbon credits for ‘avoided deforestation’ i.e. paying people not to cut down trees. While preventing deforestation is critical and urgent if we are to preserve the world’s carbon sinks, finding ways to fund it through carbon offsetting is fraught with difficulty. The report highlights the complexities and significant risk of over-counting carbon savings from so-called ‘rainforest protection credits’.

As the world wakes up to its responsibilities to mitigate climate change and reach Net Zero, there is rapidly increasing demand for carbon offsets, and a huge range of prices at which they are bought and sold. With a voluntary carbon market estimated to be worth $2 billion (potentially $10 billion by 2030[2]), carbon offsetting has been described as the Wild West, with companies scrambling to buy offsets to meet their green credentials. While wholesale prices for international carbon credits range from $1-16 per tonne, the ‘social cost of carbon’ i.e. what it actually costs the planet to compensate for a tonne of carbon emissions, is estimated to be anywhere in the $50-200 per tonne range.

The UK Government, Church of England and a rapidly growing number of corporates are pledging to reach Net Zero by 2030, 2050 or sooner. While the ongoing decarbonisation of the economy is having an impact, most would agree that we are doing too little and too late if we have any chance of hitting our targets and keeping the world on track to meet the Paris goal of limiting global temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.  So for the foreseeable future if an organisation or individual wants to be Carbon Neutral or Net Zero, they will need to offset their unavoidable emissions by funding projects which avoid, remove or reduce carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

The challenge is how to do carbon offsetting well. While most offset projects are now working to one of the international third-party standards, as the Guardian article points out, there are increasing questions about whether this form of self-policing can ensure genuine carbon removals or reductions. Similar concerns were expressed by the UK Climate Change Committee’s 2022 Report into Voluntary Carbon Markets and Offsetting.[3]

Some years ago, Climate Stewards concluded that the major third-party carbon standards like Verra and Gold Standard, were not suited to the kind of partners we want to work with. These standards are designed for huge projects and require too many consultants flying around the world and red tape to make them cost-effective for partners like ours – small, community-based organisations, often run by local Christian groups in the global south. Quite apart from the prohibitive cost of these standards, there were questions about land rights, planting the wrong trees in the wrong places, and examples of projects reaching the accreditation stage but then failing to follow up and verify that the project had been well-implemented, that stoves and filters were still in use and trees had not been cut down.

There is a danger that large third-party standards are delivering the required carbon credits but without actually changing things on the ground – or the atmosphere. Take, for example, the notion of “suppressed demand”. This allows a carbon auditor to assume that every household in a community was boiling their water to make it safe to drink before the arrival of a water filter project (which provides clean water without the need to boil it, and therefore reduces emissions). If in fact some households were too poor to boil their drinking water before the arrival of the project, this will be ignored. So the baseline scenario is one of high carbon emissions from boiling water, while the ‘with project’ scenario shows significant emissions reductions, generating lots of carbon credits to sell. Although families may be healthier as they can now filter their water to make it safe to drink, there are no actual carbon savings.

The reality, as we have learned at Climate Stewards, is that doing offsetting well is slow, painstaking and doesn’t come cheap. After realising that existing third-party standards would not work for our projects, we decided to create a simple standard of our own.

The Climate Stewards Seal of Approval[4] aims to ensure high-quality, transparent, sustainable projects bringing multiple benefits to people and places.  Our carbon calculations are conservative and are subject to a careful risk analysis, and we reserve substantial stocks of carbon in a risk buffer. Climate Stewards works with seven partner projects on three continents to provide biosand water filters or fuel-efficient cookstoves, and plant trees. Each project is locally owned and managed, and carefully designed to bring benefits including improved health (from reduced smoke, cleaner water, better diet from tree products etc.), savings in money and time (from reduced fuel consumption) and improvements in biodiversity and local climate as indigenous trees are established.

A young man preparing to plant Melia volkensii seedlings at Kathithu Church, south-eastern Kenya. Melia volkensii are
fast-growing indigenous trees and this scheme is managed by WEC Kenya and funded by Climate Stewards.

Climate Stewards does not support avoided deforestation projects. We believe that there are intrinsic difficulties in proving that an area of forest would have been cut down in the absence of carbon finance. All our forestry projects involve planting and nurturing new trees, using mostly permanent, indigenous tree species. They are done at a community scale so they can be closely supported and monitored.

We carry out extensive baseline and monitoring surveys to ensure that calculations of carbon mitigation are accurate and build in generous buffers to account for risks such as breakage of equipment, pests and fire damage to trees. We fund projects for 10-15 years, including ongoing support on the ground to ensure that new technologies are well used, and trees survive to maturity. These life-enhancing projects demonstrate that the gospel is indeed Good News for all of creation.

Climate Stewards provides online tools and advice to churches, synagogues, charities, small businesses and individuals and organisations to help them measure, reduce and offset their carbon footprint.

For individuals, the Climate Stewards strapline of “Reduce what you can; offset the rest” says it all. You could use our Duplo carbon footprint game to help people in your church or small group understand more about carbon footprints, and our online carbon footprint calculator to get a more accurate picture. Once you know your footprint you can take steps to reduce it.

For an organisation to be “Carbon Neutral” it will need to measure its carbon footprint, set year-on-year targets to reduce carbon emissions, offset what can’t be reduced, and – importantly – communicate this to its supporters and partners. Small organisations including churches, synagogues small businesses and charities can use our free online carbon calculator 360˚carbon to measure their carbon footprint each year. We also work with larger organisations such as the Bible Society, BMS, OMF and others to carry out carbon footprint audits and advise on environmental policies and action plans as part of their journey to Net Zero.

Last year Climate Stewards was approached by a US company working on an app to help people to book private jets (many of which fly empty after dropping off their passengers) asking about including an offsetting payment into each flight. You could argue that this is a laudable idea, but since a flight on a private jet emits roughly twice as much CO2 per passenger as the same flight on a passenger plane, this surely fits the description of a Papal indulgence – sin now and pay someone else to make your excuses. We said no!

As one correspondent wrote in response to the Guardian article “The question is not whether offsets are good or bad, but which ones are good”.[5] To which I would add, offsetting is a valid response to the climate emergency only after every effort has been taken to measure and reduce your carbon footprint and keep doing that year on year.

Caroline Pomeroy is the director of Climate Stewards