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All your questions answered about carbon offsetting

written by
Holly Tuppen
Holly Tuppen

Our guide to the complex world of carbon offsetting

At Niarra, we're constantly looking for ways to help tackle the climate crisis. This means reducing our operational and trip carbon emissions where possible and taking responsibility for the inescapable truth that flying comes with a hefty footprint. While recognising that carbon offsetting is not a perfect solution, we contribute 1% of each trip's cost to meaningful nature-based carbon sequestration projects.

This contribution ensures that each trip generates further positive impact and more than offsets customer emissions from international flights. For our carbon offsetting partners, we've selected nature-based projects because we have a responsibility to tackle both the climate and biodiversity crisis and believe that a thriving natural world has a far-reaching positive impact on people, too. Through economic opportunities, education, and empowerment, the improvement of livelihoods is central to each selected project, just as it is when we design our trips.

Our approach to carbon offsetting is pragmatic in our acknowledgement of its complexities, conservative in our carbon estimates, rigorous in our project selection process, and local in the projects we support. This is also very much the beginning of our journey in understanding and committing to positive impact.

Read more about our selected offsetting partners here.

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Why is reducing carbon a priority?

Once a nightmarish prediction, the climate crisis is well and truly upon us as atmospheric carbon reaches unprecedented levels. Unlike previous fluctuations in carbon, geologists refer to this one as The Anthropocene since it is due to human activities for the first time in history. Those activities are mostly burning fossil fuels, releasing carbon that has been under the earth's surface for hundreds of thousands of years. Alongside burning fossil fuels, humans are also responsible for the widespread destruction of nature, removing most of the earth's natural carbon 'sinks' that help to absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere. This dual attack on our carefully balanced planetary system is already altering life on earth for good, rising sea levels and creating more extreme weather patterns.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees from pre-industrial records is the limit we can withstand before catastrophic consequences, such as displacing hundreds of millions of people living in low-lying coastal zones. If we carry on as we are, scientists predict we will reach this level by 2030.

What is carbon offsetting? 

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a carbon offset is "a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a project that reduces the total amount of carbon produced in the world." Essentially, carbon offsetting allows you to compensate for your carbon emissions.

Carbon offsetting is also sometimes referred to as the voluntary carbon market because it generates 'carbon credits' you can purchase. In 2019, approximately 104 million metric tons of CO2 were offset at a value of $282 million. It sounds a lot, but this is only about 1% of global carbon emissions.

Offsetting has been around since 1989 when Applied Energy Services, an American electric power company, offset its emissions by financing an agriforest in Guatemala. Today, approximately 75% of all offsetting comes from businesses and corporations, most of which commit to some form of net-zero or carbon-positive target.

Net-zero is absorbing or sequestering an equal amount of carbon to that which you emit, and net positive is absorbing or sequestering more carbon than you emit. Besides reducing carbon emissions, offsetting is the only way any business or individual can achieve this.  

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Does carbon offsetting always involve planting trees? 

In 2007, Richard Branson famously launched a competition rewarding US$25 million to anyone that can invent a way to capture carbon from the atmosphere. A climate scientist mockingly sent in a picture of a tree. Forests remove up to 30% of human-made carbon emissions, so it's no surprise that tree planting is historically the most common form of carbon offsetting.

Other carbon-offsetting project categories include:

- Funding renewable energy to support the global transition away from fossil fuels

- Providing clean energy solutions and making energy efficiency improvements

- Funding nature-based solutions like regenerative agriculture

- Funding carbon capture technology and innovation

Tree planting can be contentious. Conservationists argue it's more productive and critical to protect or regenerate existing ecosystems so that they can continue their function as carbon sinks rather than plant monoculture forests grown purely for offsets.  

Matt Davies, a co-founder of Niarra partner Mossy Earth, agrees, "Unfortunately, many large carbon offsetting schemes plant non-native, monoculture forests that overtime degrades the land, are devoid of wildlife, contribute to the acidification of soils and rivers, while creating potential flooding and fire hazards. This is not what we are about."

"In all our decisions, from project selection to monitoring and implementation, we focus on improving the state of the ecosystem rather than optimising carbon sequestration rates. Coincidentally, however, by working to establish wild and resilient forest ecosystems, we believe we are increasing our chances of creating a stable carbon sink that will continue to sequester carbon for years to come."

Dr Hassan Sachedina is CEO of one of our carbon partners in Africa, BioCarbon Partners, a majority African-owned social enterprise working with local stakeholders to create one of Africa's most significant migration corridors. He believes, "Old forests capture more carbon than tree planting because they have had centuries to establish roots and structures to store carbon in biomass and soils. As a global community, we do not have the time to focus our carbon strategy on planting trees alone, or technologically engineered solutions, which are not scalable yet. We have a cost-effective and ready tool in front of us by protecting old tropical forests."

And there are also ecosystems that can be more effective carbon sinks than forests, depending on the environmental context, such as peatland, and other nature-based opportunities such as seagrass restoration.

Why is carbon offsetting sometimes criticised? 

Since rising in popularity over the last decade, carbon offsetting has come under scrutiny for several reasons. Environmentalists have long argued that it can do more harm than good — appeasing our carbon-guzzling habits rather than encouraging behaviour change. The writer George Monbiot once told the Guardian, "Our guilty consciences appeased, we continue to fill up our SUVs and fly around the world without the least concern about our impact on the planet … it's like pushing the food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten it." 

Another criticism is that most of the schemes don't do what they say they do. A 2017 European Commission into the offsetting industry found that up to 85% of projects do not absorb the carbon they say they do. This can be because of flawed carbon calculations or promised projects failing. Another concern is that the carbon savings would have happened anyway, rather than being additional—a murky point to prove either way.  

Adding to the confusion, the price of offsetting can vary and often seems incredibly cheap. This is because there's a huge range of ways to calculate the environmental impact of an activity and reduce carbon emissions. For example, relatively large carbon savings can be made by installing low energy light bulbs, which is low cost.

Since some controversy around offsetting schemes ignoring local needs (or worse, exploit them — called 'Climate Colonisation'), a vital element of any verified project is proven social benefit and community buy-in.  

For example, one of our partners in Africa, Trees for Global Benefits, supports and financially rewards (via the voluntary carbon market) small-scale farmers in Uganda that adopt sustainable forestry projects. Our partner in Latin America, CommuniTree, the largest reforestation project in Nicaragua, adopts the same principles—smallholder farmers receive higher and a more reliable income in return for creating indigenous forests on unused chunks of land.

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What should I look for in carbon offsetting schemes?

Matt Davies at Mossy Earth comments, "Inconsistency in the voluntary carbon offsetting market has been its Achilles heel in gaining credibility. Therefore, be sure to check a provider can guarantee these three qualities before you tick the 'offset your emissions here' box."

Mossy Earth's suggested three core qualities are:

1. Clear transparency

- Can the provider clarify precisely how and where your money will be invested to ensure your emissions are removed, reduced, or avoided? 

- How can you evaluate their work is being carried out effectively? If it's a reforestation project, are trees only planted where natural regeneration is unlikely to occur, so there is additionality? Successful reforestation projects ensure trees reach maturity when they can sequester CO2, so read into how the project aims to protect or replace young trees.

- What evidence can they provide to support their calculations and outcomes? Don't assume an accredited scheme or project is reliable. As described previously, even industry standards are dubious.

2. A good degree of accuracy in valuing carbon offset credits 

Stay away from cheap valuations of carbon. Airlines such as Easyjet set their price way below the European Trading System (ETS) cap and trade valuations in the compliance market. 

Choose a more comprehensive calculation that factors in detailed emission-related considerations, such as the flight and car-related factors previously described.

3. A positive impact on the wider context of the landscape

- A good project will positively contribute to the overall health of the surrounding environment. Ways in which it can do this include protecting wildlife and their habitats and restoring ecosystems. This will deliver benefits like improved water and soil quality and build natural resistance to natural disasters.

- Are non-native or monoculture forests being planted instead of native ones? Without verifying this, your well-intended efforts could end up generating instead of reducing CO2 emissions. Not to mention the catastrophic problems these plantations can trigger. 

How does Niarra select its carbon offsetting partners? 

At Niarra, having a positive impact on the broader landscape and community is central to each trip. So, it is naturally a top priority when selecting carbon offsetting and climate partners.

For example, by linking five National Parks in Zambia, the work of BioCarbon Partners will not only support wildlife in Zambia but also neighbouring Malawi and Mozambique. The project addresses the key drivers of deforestation while also benefitting local communities by reducing poverty, creating sustainable incomes, improving social services, and encouraging conservation.

What also sets the project aside from other offsetting schemes is its rigorous verification process. Communications Coordinator for BioCarbon Partners, Chloe Evans, tells us, "The project has been successfully verified three times through the Verified Carbon Standard and has achieved CCBA Triple Gold Validation for exceptional community impact. BCP is also a proud member of the B Corporation global community, scoring in the top 0.5% out of over 4,000 businesses across 70 countries worldwide."

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How is carbon measured? 

There are two important carbon measurements in the offsetting process. First, measuring the carbon you want to offset and second, measuring how much carbon a project absorbs. The former is known as a carbon footprint, and when it comes to nature-based solutions, the latter is carbon sequestration.

1. Measuring your carbon footprint.

Businesses and individuals can use a reliable carbon calculator. Mossy Earth has a carbon footprint calculator for individuals with extensive information about where the data comes from. At Niarra, we use C Level's carbon footprint calculator that has been built specifically for travel. There are still several data gaps in in-country carbon emissions, so our calculations are predominantly flights which represent the majority of any trip's footprint — it's something we're working on.

These calculators work out the carbon dioxide equivalent, CO2e per activity. Although multiple greenhouse gases are causing the climate crisis (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulphur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride), it's much easier to compare impact by using a standard unit. So, CO2e represents the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide that would lead to the same amount of warming over 100 years.

Carbon calculators take these figures to establish the 'emission factor' per activity, e.g., driving a car for 1km emits 0.04 kg of CO2e. As you can imagine, this is an incredibly complicated process, especially when you consider the sweeping averages and generalisations that have to be made (in the case of a generic car journey, the specific tailpipe emissions vary based on engine size, efficiency and fuel type, while often ignoring extraction and manufacturing emissions). Therefore it is not surprising that footprint calculations can vary significantly.  

2. Measuring carbon sequestration

When a tree sequesters carbon via photosynthesis, the carbon forms living matter throughout the forest and eventually stabilising in the soil. Like different types of ecosystems are responsible for sinking different amounts of carbon so are different types of forests. Research is ongoing, but there is strong evidence to suggest that native forests store more carbon than non-native species, and old-growth forests are the largest carbon sinks.

When predicting (before the action takes place) and then estimating (after the action takes place) sequestration figures, multiple factors come into play, including tree species, type of soil and local climate—the more rigorous the research, the more accurate the predictions and then estimates of carbon sequestration. Mossy Earth carries out secondary research of peer-reviewed literature and makes a conservation estimate that, on average, one tree sequesters 0.25 tonnes of carbon dioxide over 50-100 years.

Is carbon offsetting the only solution?

The short answer is no. Offsetting is a last resort after all attempts have been made to reduce emissions in the first place. That's why at Niarra, we only work with partners and accommodations that take sustainability seriously, striving for a continual reduction in negative impact and increase in positive impact.

Matt Davies comments, "Offsetting carbon emissions is only a part of the crisis that we are facing. Even more alarming is the irreversible loss of biodiversity or what is termed the sixth mass extinction. As such, we at Mossy Earth put the preservation of biodiversity at the forefront of what we do, and that carbon offsetting is just one of the many benefits of nature restoration."

Dr Hassan Sachedina, CEO of BioCarbon Partners, agrees, in a recent article writing that "The science shows that we are behind track and that we need every tool in the toolkit to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement."

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