A Pragmatist's Guide to Climate Change and Carbon Offsetting
4 min read
The basics: what is climate change and why is it happening?
We humans are pretty miraculous. We’ve been to space, we‘ve split the atom, we invented deep-fried Mars bars. We’ve developed a global system that has reduced the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty from 89% in 1820 to just 10% today, and increased the global average life expectancy from 28 years to 72 across the same period.
Global average income per person is $15,200 today compared with just $1,100 200 years ago (adjusted for inflation). As a species, we are far healthier and wealthier now - as a result of phenomenal growth over just a few generations - than we have ever been throughout history. This is something to be celebrated.
But – and there’s always a but – this has come at a cost. The rapid economic growth and parallel surge in energy demand has caused huge amounts of waste, resource extraction and natural destruction. The most significant forms of waste are the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are emitted as a result of nearly every human activity such as driving, power generation, agriculture, construction etc etc etc.
The most infamous of these GHGs is carbon dioxide (CO2), but it is partnered in crime by methane, nitrous oxide and a handful of others. While some of these nasties are absorbed by natural carbon sinks like the oceans, forests and the soil, ~50% of the GHGs emitted every year accumulate in the atmosphere and trap the heat of the sun, causing global temperatures to gradually increase. This is what is know as the greenhouse effect.
You already know this, but the consequences of a warming planet are bad news for us all. Think flooding, famine, ocean acidification, mass migration, water shortage and wildlife extinction to name a few. It is about far more than just some altruistic desire to protect the natural world; the human consequences of these changes are equally severe. Climate change is real, it is taking place now and it will affect us all.
If you're wondering, how certain are scientists that climate change is happening? Well, the consensus among the global scientific community that we humans are causing this mess is effectively 100%. So, yes, about as certain as it is possible to be.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though. If we can keep the increase in global temperatures to below 1.5º Celsius (compared with ~1850-1900 levels), today we are at approximately +1º Celsius, then we can avoid the worst. To do this, we need to quickly alter the trajectory of global GHG emissions, eventually reducing them to net-zero (more on “net” shortly). Of course, this is waaaaay easier said than done. A global decarbonisation is a mega challenge, the greatest our species has ever faced, and one which requires an almighty collective effort and a wide array of different solutions. It’s not just about electric vehicles and solar panels. Transformational changes are required across all sectors of the economy from farming to fashion to finance. There is no one silver bullet but thankfully we know what needs to be done. Many of the solutions are available today, we just need to find the willpower and the consensus to implement them.
Why is carbon offsetting so important?
Ok, so what is “carbon offsetting” and why is it relevant? Well, as you can see in the chart above, we need to bend the curve of GHG emissions fast. Huge efforts are being made to reduce emissions from certain sectors like road transport and power generation but our current energy system is vast and complicated.
Energy transitions take a long time and, sadly, time isn’t something we have lots of. Moreover, there are certain parts of the economy, such as aviation, heavy shipping and steel production, that are extremely costly or impossible to decarbonise with current technology.
This is where carbon offsetting comes in. Carbon offsetting is an activity which compensates for GHG emissions elsewhere by reducing the equivalent amount of GHG emissions from the atmosphere. For example, a tree can be planted to offset the emissions of driving a car. Or, in Selva’s case, several trees can be planted to offset all the emissions from your life.
For all those emissions that we cannot currently eliminate, we can use offsetting schemes to neutralise the impact. This is what is meant by “net-zero”: we can allow some GHG emissions, as long as there is some carbon compensation elsewhere. In other words, carbon offsetting is absolutely key to our climate change objectives. The UN agrees.
This isn’t to say we can just pollute as much as we like as long as we offset. The best way to reduce CO2 is to not emit it in the first place. But, we need to be realistic about what can be done and in what time frame. Sure, banning oil & gas today would reduce emissions fast but it would have severe negative consequences for humanity, particularly the world’s poorest. Or we could tell you not to fly, but then some of the joys of life like seeing friends and family, and travelling the world, would not be possible.
As it stands, affordable and scalable technology doesn’t exist to rapidly decarbonise all parts of the economy without hugely negative consequences for our society. The reality is that some GHG emissions will continue into the foreseeable future until new technology finds ways to reinvent certain industries. The good news is that, in the meantime, we can use the effective tools we have available today to mitigate the impact by offsetting these stubborn emissions.
Sounds sensible. How do we actually offset CO2 then?
There are a bunch of different methods out there that can be used to offset carbon emissions including renewable power generation, clean cooking stoves and landfill gas capture. Here at Selva, our much-preferred approach is transparent, responsible and affordable forestation. Forestation involves planting new trees on sites that have been previously deforested or are otherwise degraded. These new trees suck up CO2 as they grow, directly reducing the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Trees are extremely affordable, they are available now, they are scalable, and they have a whole host of other positive benefits for local habits and employment opportunities. They are a vital tool in our shared efforts against climate change. Find out more here about exactly why we focus exclusively on planting new trees.
We are part of the solution
The challenge is undeniably massive but it isn’t insurmountable. We passionately believe in the power of the individual to make a difference and Selva was created to help you do your bit. We aren’t here to preach to you and make you feel guilty about your lifestyle choices. We want to encourage you to reduce your impact where you can and then engage in carbon offsetting to compensate for everything else. We are all part of the problem but we can all be part of the solution too.