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  • Amberly Clark

Why Carbon Offsets Won’t Cut It: Misleading Terms in Climate Change Conversations


Carbon neutral! Fossil free! Sustainable! Buzz words like these and many others are constantly thrown around and misused by companies in an attempt to present themselves as environmentally friendly. For many consumers as well, anything that has “eco” in the name is seen as a good product for the environment. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. When talking about climate change, it is imperative to know and understand the definitions and limitations of certain terms. In this article, carbon offsets, net zero emissions and renewable energy will all be defined and discussed.

The term “carbon offset” is used to describe the process of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions or storing carbon in an attempt to “cancel out” a company’s current greenhouse gas emissions. While this may seem to be a perfect solution at first glance, carbon offsets are often used as a way for companies to avoid taking direct actions to reduce their own emissions. Under carbon offsets, a big company like Amazon can pledge millions of dollars towards planting thousands of trees to supposedly offset their carbon emissions without changing anything in their day to day operations. The issue with carbon offset plans is that there is no guarantee that the newly planted forests or other forms of carbon sequestration technology will be protected and maintained in the future, and no way to hold companies accountable for reducing their emissions in the present day. If a forest that is paid for by Amazon is cut down in the future, then there will actually be an increase in carbon emissions instead of a decrease which speeds up the effects of climate change. So next time a company proudly presents themselves as offsetting their emissions and being “carbon neutral,” think critically about what this means and know that while this is better than taking no actions, it does not actually mean that the company has taken responsibility over reducing its own personal emissions. Carbon offsets are a step in the right direction for companies to take in becoming greener, but they are only a small piece of the overarching changes that must be made to curb emissions and climate change.

Diagram explaining how carbon offsets work.

A second misleading phrase often used in climate change discussions is “net zero emissions.” This phrase encompasses reducing emissions and utilizing geoengineering methods to soak up human caused atmospheric carbon dioxide in an attempt to “zero out” emission levels. Anything with the words zero emissions sounds like a dream to an environmentalist, and the truth is this method is mostly just that. Despite sounding so promising, net zero emissions are deceiving because they do not take into account the need to erase already existing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Balancing out to only zero is not enough to make up for the decades of emitting gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Instead, negative emissions must become the new benchmark if the goal of keeping global average temperatures below 1.5℃ is to be achieved. Natural reduction processes of carbon dioxide such as increasing soil cover, reforestation, and protecting wetlands are all implementable solutions to reaching negative emission levels. Unfortunately, negative emissions research and natural ways of trapping carbon dioxide often fall to the back burner in the presence of complex bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology. While exciting to think about, these technological solutions will be expensive and most likely difficult to execute due to their complexity and the large amount of cooperation between nations that is required for their success. Solely relying on these advanced futuristic technologies is a risky gamble because if they fail, then it will be too late to fully reverse the effects of climate change. Net zero emissions are not the end all solution to climate change and should be replaced with the phrase negative emissions to fully communicate the scale of changes that need to be implemented now.

Graph of role of negative emissions for the 1.5℃ warming threshold shown in blue.

The last term is one that should be well known and recognized: renewable energy. This is a crucial step needed to reduce emissions, and is significantly better than burning fossil fuels for energy. However, renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines are not made out of renewable materials themselves. Solar panels need photovoltaic cells in order to capture sunlight, and silicon is a key ingredient in the cells. Silicon is an element and there is only a finite supply of it on Earth, which makes it a nonrenewable material. The other mixes of metals and glass used in producing solar panels also make it difficult for them to be recycled after their lifespan. More research and designs are needed to help make truly renewable solar panels that can be recycled and repurposed.

Wind turbines are another great way to capture wind energy, but sadly cannot be deemed as fully renewable either due to their fiberglass blades which are tough to break down and are created through unsustainable manufacturing methods. The creation of both wind turbines and solar panels also currently relies on nonrenewable energy sources, so they are not fully free from the reign of fossil fuels either. Renewable energy is a necessary step for a greener future, but must also be captured with truly renewable materials.

Knowing the deceptions and restrictions that come with the phrases carbon offsets, net zero emissions and renewable energy is an important part of understanding and improving solutions to climate change. By being informed, advocacy for more comprehensive approaches like negative emissions and policies that ensure accountability for carbon offsets can then follow.

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