Carbon offsetting is controversial, but unfortunately we need it
As an environmentalist, I’m not a big fan of offsetting. Not only does it probably lead to increased pollution, absolving us of responsibility for our emissions, but carbon credits have also been notoriously poor at actually delivering the carbon reductions they claim. I’ve not set foot on a plane since 2011 as I struggle to justify flying, even with a carbon offset. Nevertheless, I’ve just written Green Alliance’s latest policy insight exploring the role offsetting could play in getting aviation to net zero, and how it could boost funding to restore nature and biodiversity in the UK. And I am hopeful. Here’s why.
We probably will need (good) offsets to reach net zero aviation
The current Covid-19 crisis has seen a large proportion of the global airline fleet grounded. As the news today attests, this is an enormously challenging time for the industry and its employees, as well as for those people for whom not flying threatens their livelihood or cuts them off from their family. But, in the longer term, aviation faces another monumental challenge: to reduce its carbon emissions enough to make it possible for the world to limit global heating to 1.5oC. As a sector whose emissions are projected to grow substantially over the decades up to 2050 to a point where it is the dominant contributor, this is an urgent challenge.
It is possible that technologies will be developed for zero carbon or carbon neutral flight. Electric planes are talked about a lot, and it is possible to make synthetic aviation fuel, combining hydrogen with CO2 captured from the air. If produced using renewable energy, it would be carbon neutral. These are neat solutions which would probably tempt me back to the skies. But electric planes probably won’t have the range to do long haul flights, which account for the majority of emissions, and synthetic fuels are yet to be produced at commercial scale and could turn out to be prohibitively expensive.
This is why we are likely to need offsetting. Flights are probably going to be producing emissions right up to 2050 and beyond, and these will need to be ‘offset’ by equivalent removal and storage of CO2 from the atmosphere. This can be done by increasing the natural sequestration of plants and soils, and by removal technologies like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), or direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS).
It can’t be done if emissions keep rising
The ability of the UK, and the world, to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere is limited by the availability of land and energy, both of which are already under pressure. The Committee on Climate Change estimates there will be about 85 MtCO2e sequestration capacity in the UK by 2050, but this is considerably less than the amount emissions are predicted to be. Emissions need to come down to a level where it’s possible to offset them by removals to have any hope of meeting the net zero goal. For aviation, we estimate this means nearly halving current levels of emissions by 2050. Unless and until zero carbon or carbon neutral flight technologies are commercialised, this can only be achieved by reducing our insatiable appetite for flying.
A new funding opportunity for nature restoration?
It may not be happening right now but, beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, airlines will keep pumping out CO2 for decades. Offsetting these emissions by removing and storing the equivalent CO2 from the atmosphere will help to prevent climate heating gasses from continually building up. While it is not a perfect answer, it is going to happen anyway under the sector’s international agreement to offset emissions growth between 2020 and 2035, known as CORSIA. In its current form, this plan is to play its part in limiting global heating to 1.5oC. But, as it is all we have to work with now, it will be important to improve and make the most of this scheme until a long term solution is developed.
Globally, airlines were predicted to spend between £4 billion and £18 billion a year on offsets by 2035 under CORSIA, although the impacts of Covid-19 may well alter that prediction. However, even at the lower end of the scale, it is an opportunity for the UK. If just some of this money was spent on nature-based projects in the UK it could fund a new wave of projects to improve habitats and restore biodiversity, like woodland and peatland restoration.
Given that offsetting is going to happen anyway, it makes sense to try to determine what a good quality carbon credit looks like in the UK, setting a standard for other countries to follow. The UK is a good place to do it, with relatively strong regulation and enforcement around land use and management, and two world leading offset standards in the Woodland Carbon Code and Peatland Code. We propose that a new Farm and Soil Carbon Code should be added to these, to allow farmers access to this money as well, ‘farming carbon’ to generate credits for sale by growing hedges, agroforestry and sequestering carbon in the soil on their land.
Let’s split the net zero target into two
One of the very real concerns about offsetting is that it will lead to the continued growth of actual aviation emissions, allowing business as usual. But business as usual is just not an option if we’re going to solve the global climate crisis. To avoid this complacency, we believe there should be a separate target for reducing gross emissions and another for the level of carbon removals needed, rather than a single ‘net zero’ target.
It is our suggestion that a new ‘office for carbon removal’ should be set up by government to manage this and ensure that, once emissions are cut as far as they can be, any left over are met by removals. This new body could be funded by high emitting sectors, and would need to be sufficiently resourced to oversee the development of a whole new carbon removal industry. It would set rules and standards for the creation and verification of carbon removal credits, and a framework for allocating and paying for credits.
The clock is ticking
It would of course be far preferable to aim for zero emissions and there are scientists and engineers working hard on the problem. But right now there is no simple, single solution in sight and we don’t have time to wait for one. The clock is ticking. Gross aviation emissions need to be set on a reduction pathway by limiting the number of flights at the same time as scalable carbon removal and storage technologies and carbon neutral fuels are developed and deployed. Nature-based carbon offsetting isn’t the solution, but it can help to us buy time with the enormous side benefit of supporting some much needed nature restoration in the UK.