Zerofootprint: What is offsetting?

Imagine for a moment that you are a farmer in rural India. Your life is simple but hard. You grow food for your family, with perhaps a little land set aside for a cash crop such as cotton or tea. To cook, you use wood from dwindling supplies in the nearby forest, or kerosene, for which you must pay with money that you would prefer to spend on medicines or your children's education. And both wood and kerosene produce fumes, causing respiratory problems for your family.

However, you own a few cattle, and if you had a biogas plant, or there was a village facility, you could turn the dung from your cattle into fuel for cooking as well as lighting. At a stroke, you would improve your family's finances and health, and raise your standard of living. The problem is that you don't have the funds to buy the biogas plant.Meanwhile, you are reading this on a computer that is most likely consuming electricity that, when it was generated, produced emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2, or simply 'carbon'). Or if not, the manufacture of the computer most certainly did. And your family probably has a car, and you take flights from time to time. Or if not, you at least wear clothes and read books whose manufacture resulted in carbon emissions. Without reducing your quality of life and returning to a pre-industrial lifestyle, it is hard even for the most environmentally committed to cut to zero the carbon emissions for which they are responsible – at least in the short term.

But it is possible to compensate for the carbon you produce by ensuring that an equivalent amount is saved or absorbed elsewhere. That is where the farmer in India comes in. By donating to a project that will fund biogas plants in rural India - the biogas plant will eliminate the carbon emissions previously caused by the wood and kerosene burning - or one of many similar 'carbon offset' schemes in many parts of the world, you can balance the carbon you emit against its reduction or absorption elsewhere.

And in this case, the standard of living of the Indian family is raised, while your quality of life is unaffected.

Funding biogas plants is just one means of offsetting. There are many others, such as promoting solar power and other emission-free energy generation, replacing fuel-hungry equipment with more efficient equivalents such as low-energy light bulbs, or planting trees to absorb excess carbon. Trees are like giant sponges, soaking up carbon, especially when they are young and growing, and many large-scale offset programs are built around the saving or planting of trees.

There are also other environmental impacts that can be offset besides carbon emissions. Take book publishing for example. Making paper for books, and other purposes, consumes trees, water and energy and produces waste. Most of these impacts can be offset – or 'zero footprinted' – by planting new trees, protecting existing forests, and protecting water resources. Meanwhile, development of types of land that are under threat can be offset by protecting or reclaiming equivalent areas of the same types of land elsewhere – a process known as 'mitigation banking'.

Offsetting is not a substitute for reducing or eliminating emissions or other environmental impacts. Nor should it be a mechanism that allows people to continue to indulge in destructive lifestyles. In many cases, offsetting schemes are an interim measure until other solutions are developed – efficient emission-free fuels, renewable energy sources, etc. – many of which are still in the process of evolution.

Offsetting is often a partial solution that complements other approaches. Elimination or reduction of emissions, wastes or other pollutants should be the first goal. Recycling is another approach. But often these can only go so far – aluminium, for example, is good for recycling because the process uses only a fraction of the energy of the original smelting, while recycling paper still consumes large amounts of energy and water, and fibres cannot be recycled indefinitely. Offsetting can compensate for the outstanding energy and water use.

Offsetting can be seen as part of maintaining the balance of life. Simply by living on the earth we have an impact – we leave our 'ecological footprint'. Where our footprint was once small, as we lived close to nature and consumed little, now with our technology and consumerist society, our footprint is large and unsustainable. It is an ancient wisdom that if you cut down a tree, you should plant one in return. Today, our world is so complicated and we are often so removed from the consequences of our actions, that it takes considerable awareness to realize that when we, say, buy a book or a newspaper we are contributing to the felling of a tree in a distant forest. But once we have this awareness, offsetting helps us balance and compensate for our actions, and can bring us closer to the ideal of achieving a zero footprint on the Earth.

[Clive Davidson and Ron Dembo, Zerofootprint]

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