A new direction for offsets: leaving the sham behind

Grandiose corporate claims about offsetting are a massive greenwash, argues Scott Poynton, the founder of climate change initiative My Carbon Zero. Forget feelgood strategies, companies need to act on the root causes of their emissions first. Karen Southern investigates.

Scott Poynton doesn’t pull any punches.

“Offsetting is not a pathway to net zero,” he argues. “Rather, it’s a massive greenwash that misleads and allows firms to keep adding to the carbon problem, whilst at the same time portraying themselves as carbon heroes. It’s a sham.”

The Aussie-born activist has every right to be blunt. IPCC scientists recently warned that the world has literally reached the point of no return. Global CO2 emissions must peak by 2025 and fall drastically after that to avoid a truly monumental environmental disaster. Even then technology will be needed to draw excess carbon out of the sky. It all sounds a bit sci fi … but it’s not.

“Offsetting is a complex subject,” Scott says, “so people don’t look too deeply into it. But scratch the surface and you realise current actions don’t amount to a hill of beans in terms of companies taking responsibility for their climate impact. They bury the stats in reams of reports and say, ‘Oh, it’s really difficult. You just have to trust that we’re doing it right.

“Our aim is to go beyond offsetting and encourage companies to take carbon out of the atmosphere through investment in truly meaningful projects.”

Scott knows what he’s talking about. A forester by trade, he founded The Forest Trust (now known as Earthworm) in 1999, pioneering the world’s first No Deforestation commitments.

He worked with thousands of companies and NGOs across 48 countries, before stepping down four years ago to focus his formidable energies on new forms of carbon action through My Carbon Zero, a program sponsored by Swiss-based non-profit, The Pond Foundation. “Credible climate action isn’t just about a company monitoring its carbon footprint for a year,” he states. “It means taking responsibility for all the emissions it has ever produced.”

The key is transparency, he adds. At a time when regulations around certification are at last starting to toughen up, information must be shared with stakeholders in a way that is accessible to all.

“There are very few companies doing this,” he points out. “Microsoft almost stands alone by reporting every year on what they’re doing in a clear, simple way which is almost unique in industry.”

My Carbon Zero aims to reboot traditional offsetting with a no-nonsense approach which calculates a company’s Lifetime Carbon Balance (LCB) and plans to correct it.

“We start by looking at the current year and extrapolate back based on the number of employees. Once we get a figure based on all the protocols, we add 20% to be on the right side of averages. Then we work out what can be done to negate that figure.”

Scott is quick to clarify this is simpler than it sounds. “Gains can be made very quickly by less travel, better energy efficiency, investment in renewables, right down to turning all the lights off at night!

The 3Rs

Companies are encouraged to build their own Carbon Balance Sheet and a Carbon Investment Portfolio defining their RRRI actions (the 3Rs).

“R1 is about reducing your own emissions. Our members are asked to look at theirs and drop them by at least 50% as quickly as possible. It’s ambitious but we haven’t got time to muck around with little gestures.

“R2 and 3 focus on reducing emissions elsewhere and removing carbon from the atmosphere. It might sound like offsetting, but it’s not. For example, a UK company probably has capacity to help someone in the developing world reduce their emissions. It could mean supporting girls’ education so they can control their own lives better, get a job and have fewer babies. This will lead to fewer carbon emissions in the future.

“You can also help forest conservation, because if you keep trees standing, they won’t emit carbon when they’re destroyed.

“The last R is really where we differ from other initiatives. Basically we’re saying there’s carbon up there with your name on it … now you need to invest in projects to remove it.”

My Carbon Zero’s mission is to find projects that make a genuine difference. “Say you invest £30 in a project; on average that means a tonne of carbon will be removed from the atmosphere. If your balance works out at 1000 tonnes over your company’s lifetime, you’ve got a £30,000 liability that needs to be removed.

“It doesn’t have to be overnight, but gradually over the next decade or so. Draw that down to zero and there’s our 3R’s in a nutshell.

“The last action is I for Inspire. Tell people what you’re doing and make the ripple go further. The ripple effect is the whole principle behind the Pond Foundation.”

My Carbon Zero currently has initiatives as far flung as Cambodia, Brazil, Australia, Ghana and Italy, and is looking at projects in the UK, such as peat restoration and tree planting.

“Working on individual lifetime balances can seem a huge logistical challenge,” Scott concludes. “But once the inertia is broken, it becomes much easier to take affirmative action, however small. You can’t motivate people with fear. They need to see that simple, positive steps can make a real difference, and we can all move forward together.

“There’s a lot of turbulence in the world, and emissions are actually accelerating. 1.5C is like a distant sign in the rearview mirror. It’s the trillion little actions – not the huge ones – that will help turn this around. We’ve all just got to roll our sleeves up and keep going.”

More details about The Pond Foundation and My Carbon Zero here.


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