The concept of carbon offsetting is simple. You balance out your carbon emissions by investing in projects that decrease or restore carbon. What you produce in one area, you reduce in another. The scales even out and job done: you’re “carbon neutral”.
Except it’s not that simple in reality.
Our carbon emissions don’t work on a neat and tidy like-for-like basis. If you burn fuel today there is carbon in the air today. How many trees does a frequent flyer need to plant to offset their carbon footprint? How do we count the years those trees are still saplings?
For this reason, the term “carbon neutral” is being recognised as a massively problematic claim for businesses to make.
Aiming to be carbon neutral isn’t enough of an incentive to reduce your carbon emissions. In fact, you could increase your emissions and still be ‘carbon neutral’ because you can buy your way out of your carbon increase.
As businesses we need to rethink what it means to do our bit.
Climate contribution > carbon offsetting: Same investment, different impact
Personally, carbon offsetting has always sat uncomfortably with me. In the early days of Thrive’s sustainability journey, I found myself asking:
Is that it? Is that all that’s required of us?
Carbon neutrality felt empty to me. Cancelling out our carbon emissions by offsetting wasn’t the same as doing the work to drastically reduce our carbon footprint.
But here’s the thing: pulling investment out of offsetting projects is not the answer.
Running away from carbon offsetting because it’s “greenwashing” would mean many important projects start to lose funding, and this would negatively impact our global goals.
Instead, we need to change the way we’re thinking about offsetting.
The SBTi (Science Based Target initiative) explains how we must both reduce our own emissions and then go further:
“Companies must prioritize value chain emission reductions ahead of actions or investments to mitigate emissions outside their value chains to achieve net-zero. However, the Standard also explicitly states that “companies should go further and invest in mitigation outside their value chains now to contribute towards reaching societal net-zero”. This means that while absolute emissions reductions must be prioritized, companies must also invest in beyond value chain mitigation (BVCM) to help the global economy align with 1.5°C and net-zero.”
I prefer the term ‘climate contribution’ when thinking about Thrive’s progress towards net zero. That’s what led me to the Million Tree Pledge. Planting trees is part of our climate contribution, working alongside our efforts to track and reduce our carbon emissions, both within our company and in our wider supply chain.
Continue buying a carbon offset, but understand it doesn’t balance emissions.
With their position in supply chains, many B2B businesses are already pledged to net zero through their customers’ own targets. We all need to show stakeholders how we’re meeting the challenge.
Because there is this business case around net zero, it will remain important to demonstrate that the balancing between emission and offsets is being done. But be careful not to claim you are net zero or carbon neutral unless you’ve done the hard work of dramatic reduction.
There are some amazing carbon reduction and restoration projects out there to invest in. Million Tree Pledge is just one of them. Do it anyway! Plant trees. Invest in solar initiatives. Explore conservation projects. Reduce your emissions as much as possible, and make these kinds of investments an additional part of your impact plan.
Our philosophy: we don’t do giving back, we do giving as we go.
Stuck on where to start with sustainability? Explore our recommended 10 starter steps
Reducing emissions is vital across all business sectors if we’re to meet Net Zero 2050. We need collective action at scale, fast.
But it can be hard to know where to start to make a significant shift in the right direction. The natural starting point can look different from business to business. Our kick off was an Ecologi subscription. Since then, we’ve made changes such as:
- Switched to green website hosting
- Invested in pre-owned office furniture
- Switched all our electric heating to run on smart devices
- Moved to completely paperless operations
- Provided a renewable energy incentive for home workers
See how we’re planning, measuring and tracking progress on our net zero page.
*Here are 10 quick wins for SMEs who want to take climate action. These are easily accessible things all businesses can do as a starting point. Visit our transparency page too, to see how making a positive impact on your team, community and the wider world makes for a more successful business.
Sustainability is imperative, but having a positive purpose is just good business.