From ‘Offsets’ to ‘Contributions’: Reframing How We Think About Indirect Emissions Reductions

This is a critically important discussion that could have profound implications for how we navigate our path down to zero.

Cropped Image Of Hand Planting On Field
Phathn Sakdi Skul Phanthu / EyeEm / Getty Images

I get it. Offsets are controversial. In fact, many view them as little more than a fig leaf for continued unabated emissions and "guilt free" indulgence. They are particularly problematic when it comes to big polluters and claims that oil companies can be net-zero without rapidly winding down production and sales. But even for us poor, conflicted individuals, who are trying to do the right thing within a system that encourages the opposite, there is fierce debate about whether offsets can be some part of the solution, or whether they are a distraction that provides air cover for business-as-usual. 

Part of the discussion revolves around whether they actually work. If I pay someone to plant a tree, for example, or change out their showerhead for a more efficient one, what evidence is there of true additionality?

In other words, might that action have happened anyway and has my contribution just made the act more profitable for the person or entity taking that step? As Toby Hill wrote recently for Business Green, the evidence is mixed on this front—and any effort to sustain offsets for the long-term will require considerable work to ensure both additionality and transparency on the specific volume of emissions that any such payment results in. 

Another concern, however, is a little more philosophical. It revolves around whether paying to reduce someone else’s emissions can really justify continued emissions elsewhere. After all, the argument goes, we need to be reducing emissions everywhere—as fast as we possibly can—and there is a danger that absolution leads to inaction. And inaction results in continued harm that might otherwise have been avoided. 

It’s this type of argument that’s deployed in this witty ad from the good folks at the Climate Ad Project

It's a super valid concern. Yet I do think we need to be careful about how we think about this problem. Avoiding infidelity in a committed, monogamous relationship is a very specific goal—and there really is only one way to achieve it: Don’t cheat. 

The task of reducing emissions, however, is a society-wide one. As I have argued in my book on climate hypocrisy, we are not each on an individual mission to reduce our own footprint to zero. Instead, we are on a collective mission to reduce the only footprint that counts—that of society as a whole. We should be less interested in whether offsets absolve someone’s personal guilt or responsibility, and more interested in whether they work to drive down emissions at the scale they say they do, without incentivizing an equivalent amount of emissions elsewhere. (As discussed above, it’s not yet clear that they do.) 

This is where Sweep—a software company that helps other companies track and reduce their climate impact—recently offered a modest but potentially powerful proposal:

Rather than the binary choice of either allowing offsets to perpetuate business-as-usual, or instead rejecting the whole concept out-of-hand and assuming that direct, in-house emissions reductions are the only thing that counts. Sweep is suggesting we get a lot better at distinguishing between direct climate action and broader contributions to society-wide goals.

In reality, this is how many of the good faith companies and organizations I have worked with, including my current employer, have tended to think about contributions, formerly known as offsets, in the past. They were not a "get out of jail free" card to continue as normal, but rather a recognition that, short of simply shutting up shop and going out of business, most of us will need an off ramp from current emissions to those we eventually want to achieve. 

I don’t want to oversell this proposal either. As Hot Take’s Mary Heglar wrote recently in regard to broader climate language, our movement can have a tendency to invest a lot of time and effort into debating specific terminology: “…there’s this pernicious idea that once we find the magic word, all the barriers to climate action will just come tumbling down. That’s never going to happen.” 

Nevertheless, this is a critically important discussion that could have profound implications for how we navigate our path down to zero. Just as there are vast differences between those net-zero commitments that feature near-term goals and concrete commitments, and those that are clearly designed to delay societal-level interventions, there are also vast differences that so-called offsets might play within that process. 

Renewable energy expert Ketan Joshi, who continues to be critical of carbon offsets in general, certainly seems to think that there’s a kernel of value to Sweep’s approach. Here’s how he described it on Twitter: “This fundamentally resolves the core issue with "offsets" - they serve, currently, as a justification for continued emissions. And as such, tie climate harm to climate action. Destroy that use case, and they become a positive force.”

Meanwhile, Greenpeace has called for an end to offsets all together. Clearly, this is going to remain a controversial topic for some time to come, and opinions vary among people I greatly respect. My suggestion, then, is simply to start by focusing our attention here: 

  1. Can funding emissions reductions elsewhere possibly play a part in an ambitious and near-term journey down to zero emissions?
  2. If so, how much of a contribution can such an approach realistically make?
  3. How do we make sure that it does not become a distraction from direct emissions reductions?

In some ways, what we call these things is the least of our concerns. Yet what we call them may have a significant influence on how they are used, and who gets to claim the credit.