A band-aid is not going to prevent you from getting hurt

Nina van Rijn

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5 minutes

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Opinion

When I travel by plane, I’m ashamed. Still, I continue to travel by plane. To feel a little less bad about myself, I always compensate my CO2-emissions. Also corporates compensate their emissions to their heart’s content. I, but I assume also compensating corporates, am never quite sure whether it’s the right thing to do.

July 26, 2021
Image: 
Fiona Murray

I’ve had countless discussions with my friends on compensating: Is it good? Is it bad? Is it greenwashing? Is it going to save humanity and all life on earth from the eternal fire? Or what else is needed to save us? I never seem to reach a conclusion in this discussion.

So I decided to dive into the concept, so next time I can win the discussion (yes, I know, one doesn’t win a discussion, but I still want to win). What I found is the following. Compensating is not necessarily good. Compensating is also not per definition bad. It can be used for greenwashing. It is definitely not going to save us. Let me explain.

Why compensating is not necessarily good

In order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, as was convened in the Paris Climate Agreement, we need to reach net-zero mid-century. More and more companies, cities and countries are committing to this.

Net-zero is – according to IPCC – the situation where “anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period”. Originally, the term was coined to refer to a global balance, but corporates have integrated the term into their own practice. Fine with me. A company is net-zero when its value chain does not result in accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. It implies two conditions:

1. Decarbonizing the value-chain consistent with the depth of reduction needed to achieve 1.5°C pathways.

2. Neutralizing the impact of any residual emissions that are unfeasible to be eliminated. This implies permanently removing this amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.

But sometimes neutralizing this isn’t feasible. Then, a company can divert to compensation. Compensation is the reduction of GHG-emissions that remain unabated, outside the own value-chain. For example, a company has 100 kg of unabated CO2 in its value chain. In order to compensate, the company buys carbon credits for renewable energy projects that replace higher-carbon alternatives. Yes, 100 kg of emissions are reduced elsewhere. But they are not removed: the company’s emissions are still accumulating in the atmosphere: 100 kg of CO2 per year. These carbon credits are not going to change that. Think of it this way: Compensating is putting a band aid on harm that’s already been done. It’s not going to prevent you from getting wounded.

Therefore, compensating is not in line with the 1.5°C trajectory of the Paris Agreement. Compensating is just not enough. In order to neutralize unabated carbon, negative emissions are needed: you actually need to extract carbon from the air.

Why compensating is not necessarily bad

Companies may opt to compensate the emissions they are still emitting while being in transition towards net-zero. This can accelerate the transition. It’s better than nothing, so to speak. However, compensation does not replace the need to decarbonize the value-chain altogether.

Why compensating can be greenwashing

Compensating – preventing emissions outside the own value chain – is generally much easier than decarbonizing the own value chain. Common compensation strategies are purchasing carbon credits, investing directly in emission reducing activities or calculating ‘avoided emissions’. ‘Avoided emissions’ means comparing the impact of a product or service that a company brings to market to the impact of an alternative. For example, I start making soy burgers. The value chain emissions are – hypothetically – 10 kg of CO2e per 100 grams of burger. The alternative, a beef burger, emits 18 kg. Now I can claim that I saved 8 kg of CO2e for every 100 grams of soy burger that I sell. But avoided emissions are a relative metric. I’m not actually saving 8 kg of CO2e. I’m still emitting 10 kg of CO2e, and my emissions are still accumulating in the atmosphere.

Companies can use avoided emissions claim climate or carbon neutrality. I’m not arguing that companies do this out of ill will, to intentionally greenwash. Because, yes, it’s better to produce soy burgers than beef burgers, and it can be very valuable to communicate this.

I’m only arguing that it’s not a credible strategy towards net-zero or towards a 1.5°C trajectory, and also the soy burger producer needs to decarbonize as much as she can.

Is it going to save humanity and all life on earth?

No, compensating emissions is not going to save humanity. But by eliminating humanity, maybe all other life on earth will be saved, right? Dark. But true.

What’s needed to save us?

The scientific community has clearly stated that global net-zero CO2-emissions are needed by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5° C. Drastic decarbonization is needed, in line with the Paris-trajectory.

But before one knows how much and how to decarbonize, it’s of course necessary to know how much and where you’re emitting, throughout the value chain. Salacia is here to help.

Oh, and want to clean up your personal CO2 mess? Then the only truly effective thing to do is also to decarbonize: stop flying and eat a soy burger. If you can’t, then neutralize or compensate.

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