Carbon offsetting involves removing an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere as we put into it.
Climate change is a costly problem for everyone. In addition to the environmental effects damaging the planet, more extreme and inhospitable weather will cost billions of dollars each year.
According to the White House, the U.S. could spend another $25 billion to $128 billion every year on responding to hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts and other events — up to a staggering $2 trillion annually for climate relief by the end of the century.
Carbon emissions significantly contribute to climate change, weakening the Earth’s ability to regulate temperature and trapping heat in the atmosphere. As scientists look for new ways to combat climate change, carbon removal may be the solution necessary to reduce harmful emissions and reverse climate damage.
Understanding carbon emissions is essential to finding solutions to reduce them. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a natural and important gas in Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a necessary element: CO2 absorbs and radiates heat, allowing the planet to maintain a warm enough temperature to sustain life.
However, excessive levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases cause trouble in the atmosphere. Too much CO2 intensifies the planet’s natural greenhouse effect, causing it to retain too much heat and raising the Earth’s temperature higher than normal, leading to global warming. This has several consequences, from rising sea levels and ocean acidification to more extreme weather events.
Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. While certain natural processes emit CO2, like decomposition, most emissions in the last several decades have come from human activities. Burning fossil fuels for heat and electricity, manufacturing, transportation, agriculture and other processes has increased the CO2 content in the atmosphere by 50% in the last 200 years.
What is carbon offsetting?
These high carbon emissions mean the planet can’t regulate itself and climate change starts to impact communities worldwide. Many people have sought ways to reverse or limit the damage after feeling the effects. One proposed solution is carbon offsetting.
Carbon offsetting involves removing an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere as one puts into it. Since many industries cannot or will not eliminate CO2 emissions entirely, this compromise allows companies to continue production while minimizing — or offsetting — the carbon that ends up in the environment. Offsetting enables them to earn carbon credits for their conservation efforts.
A corporation’s commitment might include reducing overall emissions, but offsetting is about removing a certain amount from the atmosphere, not just prevention. These goals are often part of a company’s wider net-zero initiatives.
For example, a transportation company that emits a few hundred tons of carbon dioxide each year might pledge to remove 50%, 75% or 100% of that amount. Companies, governments and other organizations can use several carbon removal methods.
Carbon removal methods
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) has one primary goal but doesn’t take just one form. Companies can implement different removal methods to offset their emissions:
- Direct air capture (DAC): DAC is the most common and straightforward method, extracting carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere with physical or chemical processes. The carbon is then stored underground or in other permanent facilities.
- Reforestation: Conservation efforts that encourage reforestation — or afforestation, the growth of brand new forests — is a more long-term CDR method. Trees absorb CO2 to help naturally manage the greenhouse effect, and growing more of them makes the process more efficient in offsetting carbon output.
- Biomass carbon removal and storage: Using biomass like plants and algae to capture CO2 from the environment allows companies to store it permanently or reuse it in long-lasting products that won’t release it back into the atmosphere.
- Renewable energy: Supporting renewable energy initiatives leads to cleaner production methods than current fossil fuel-burning processes.
These solutions show promise in tackling climate change, but there’s still a long way to go before carbon offsetting reaches its full potential. Even the most dedicated removal programs cannot keep up with the current rate of emissions, which in 2021 reached a new high of 37 billion metric tons a year.
One of the biggest issues with carbon removal practices is transparency. Many companies may pledge to reduce their emissions or participate in environmental cleanup efforts, but delivering on that promise is not so easy. Without leadership, customers and regulations to hold them accountable, a business can pay lip service to its eco-friendly goals without taking action.
Environmentalists are also concerned that carbon offsetting may give companies free rein to pollute as much as they want, knowing they can always promise to offset their emissions in the future.
There’s still a long way to go before carbon removal initiatives can match the current production rate. However, as companies move toward net zero emissions, carbon offsets can help reduce the overall amount of CO2 in the atmosphere as the planet struggles with climate change.