Truth Tuesday: The Reality of Carbon Offsets

1 Aug, 2023

Tuesday is “truth-day”: our new series of posts where we use our insider expertise to unpick complex issues and challenge existing industry narratives.

This week, we look at ‘Carbon Offsets’, with huge thanks to Stay Grounded for their brilliant greenwashing factsheet that you can find on their site – a must read!


What are carbon offsets?

Carbon offsets sell a kind of fantasy: that companies (or individuals) who need to cut their emissions can effectively buy their way out of the problem.

The idea is that they can “compensate for” or “neutralise”, their emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), or other planet-warming ‘greenhouse gases’ (GHGs), by paying for an emissions reduction elsewhere.

Essentially: “I don’t want to reduce my emissions, so somebody else can do it for me.”

Examples of ‘offset projects’ might include financing wind farms to replace coal-fired power stations, or energy efficiency programmes e.g. cookstoves or home insulation.

Almost half, however, relate to forestry such as tree planting and reforestation projects that sequester carbon; many schemes also involve buying up areas of rainforest apparently threatened by logging or deforestation in order to apparently protect and preserve it.

Guardian Graphic on Carbon Offsets


In theory, properly designed and rigorously regulated offsets could be useful. If companies must pay for their emissions, then they have an incentive to emit less, and the revenue raised from these payments can be used to better fund activities which could avoid, reduce or remove emissions elsewhere. Offsets also appear, on the surface, to allow sectors that are reliant on fossil fuels – such as our aviation industry – to do their bit.

As things stand however, the carbon offset industry is plagued by problems. This has prompted many analysts to question whether it’s doing more harm than good. Offset projects have a long history of overpromising and underdelivering. With the best will in the world, they are intrinsically difficult to calculate, verify, and monitor. Offsets mostly exist in a very problematic hypothetical world: the benefits of each project need to be determined relative to what might have occurred under a “business-as-usual” scenario without any offsetting. This is fiendishly tricky, if not impossible to prove.

This issue of hypothetical baselines is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the murky world of carbon offsets – bear with us, as we dive into the issue! 🥽

Reality Check: Carbon Offsets


Why carbon offsets are fundamentally flawed

At Safe Landing, we believe that the entire basis of carbon offsetting, that emissions reductions in one sector (e.g. domestic heating, cooking, power generation, or forestry) can “offset” or “neutralise” emissions growth in another sector is flawed. The obvious problem with this concept is that climate scientists are telling us very, very clearly that we need rapid emissions cuts across every sector of the global economy in order to avert climate catastrophe.


Slide from IPCC Working Group 3 Presentation in 2022 on the Mitigation of Climate Change

If we manage to reduce some power generation emissions from the electricity grid, then we’ll immediately cancel out this brilliant progress if emissions in another sector (such as aviation) is then allowed to grow as a consequence. The maths simply doesn’t stack up!

Carbon offsets are essential

The man speaking below is Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines. You don’t need to take our word that offsets are flawed – take his!: “If we planted every square inch of the planet that could grow trees, it would account for less than 5 months of mankind’s emissions. By the way we’d all starve to death because we just covered up all of the farms.”


Problems ensuring quality of carbon offsets

Even if the entire system of carbon offsetting wasn’t fundamentally flawed at the outset, the industry has been plagued with issues of ensuring that offsets are:

  • verified (have actually happened)
  • additional (wouldn’t have happened anyway)
  • permanent (e.g. trees planted as offsets will actually grow and won’t due due to climate-induced wildfires or drought)


Carbon offsets are a distraction and provide false hope

Our experience is that the carbon offsetting saga – which has already played out for well more than a decade, and has demonstrated itself to be rotten to the core – has simply served as a distraction and delay mechanism to reducing fossil fuel use and emissions now, as required.

The fossil fuel companies have been laughing their way to the bank, while the rest of us deal with the real, immediate and rapidly deteriorating consequences of climate breakdown.


The social impact of carbon offsets

Since emission reduction projects are cheaper in the Global South, this is where most offset projects are located. They are a form of neo-colonialism and create new inequities between North and South. They demand to take over the management of large areas of land, usually in largely rural agrarian economy countries, and even dispossess local and indigenous peoples of their customary rights without their consent or sometimes even their knowledge. This isn’t just immoral, it’s ecological madness – despite the fact that indigenous peoples make up around 15% of the world’s extreme poor and just 5% of the global population, they are protecting 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. In short, we are ripping the best custodians of our remaining wildlife habitats and carbon sinks away from their land – often to plant a homogenous, biological desert of non-indigenous monoculture tree species.

Carbon offsets are fair

Don’t believe us, take it from somebody with actual direct, on the ground local knowledge:


Policies which tax or price fuel and emissions are far more desirable and effective than carbon offsets

We desperately need aviation emissions pricing that ramps up towards the future price for scalable negative emissions, likely Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS) technology.

Direct Air Carbon Capture & Storage: How does it work? (infographic)

This is likely to cost a minimum of $200-500 per tonne of CO2 and currently costs far more than $1000/tCO2. The current “Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation” (CORSIA), doesn’t even cover most emissions, and prices the emissions it does cover at less than $10/tCO2. This is ridiculously low and a completely unsustainable situation.

CORSIA Coverage

Also, don’t believe airline executives that tell you air traffic growth and profits are vital to pay for decarbonisation, while taxes and higher fuel/emissions prices would hurt these efforts. That’s utter baloney and we can prove it. Across the 2010-2019 period we had an unprecedented period of air traffic growth prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, bumper airline profits were used for share-buy backs in order to drive higher share prices and reward shareholders. Virtually no profits were directed towards either investment in “SAF”, hydrogen/electric aircraft, or radically efficient aircraft development.

Further back, the OPEC oil crisis in the 1980s caused a spike in jet fuel prices, airline profits dipped, yet that decade saw an unprecedented drive for aviation innovation and concepts such as the OpenRotor were flight-tested, before subsequently being shelved in the 1990s when the oil price dropped again.

Carbon offsets are better than taxes

The reality is we need a higher fuel/emissions price to drive a new period of rapid aviation decarbonisation – and the aerospace market is not being shown the price lever that would push it to more rapidly innovate.

So let’s relegate carbon offsets to the scrap heap and replace them with higher fuel/emissions pricing in order to power the next golden age of aviation – one with high levels of radical research and development (R&D) – and one of higher aviation worker employment!


Legal Challenge

A final note to anybody in our industry reading this who has made it this far: you may be forgiven for thinking: “yes, they’re right, but so what? The greenwash will continue unabated!”

Wizz Air


If so, you’re probably right, for now – most aviation companies, besides the odd comment from the United Airlines CEO (worth noting though that United Airlines are part of Star Alliance, which still offsets), are still nevertheless fully reliant on flawed carbon offsetting calculations to justify continued air traffic growth this decade. A classic example of this is the CEO of Wizz Air, József Váradi, who has called carbon offsets ‘greenwashing’ and ‘a bit of a joke’, yet still offers it to customers!

However, this greenwashing and gaslighting cannot continue for long.

Legal challenges are now winging their way over to our aviation industry. For example:

Watch this space! 👀

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