Carbon offsetting is one way to net zero, but it must be done sustainably

By on 06/06/2022 | Updated on 06/06/2022

The Net Zero Challenge

In the race to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C, nation states and other stakeholders on a national, regional and local level are rapidly increasing their efforts to reduce their carbon emissions by 2050. In the UK we have now legislated to reach net zero by 2050.

Some sectors are looking to achieve this through operational improvements. But, for those unable to reach absolute zero – such as the aviation or agricultural industries – carbon offsetting provides a way to counteract residual emissions. Carbon offset schemes allow organisations to compensate for their residual emissions, by investing in projects which absorb carbon domestically or, more commonly, internationally.

Carbon capture and storage (CCUS) technologies are still emerging so, for now, many UK businesses are focusing on natural offsetting, such as tree-planting programmes or peatland restoration.  

For these organisations, how can we ensure that carbon offsetting strategies are done sustainably – protecting local environments and communities? 

The Changing Role of Land

The UK Climate Change Committee suggests that 25% of land used for agriculture in the UK could be released for land-use changes to meet net zero objectives, such as agroforestry and woodland and peatland creation. Indeed, many companies including Aviva, Brewdog, and Standard Life are already purchasing land for carbon offsetting, in support of their net zero commitments.

Whilst carbon offsetting is a vital net zero strategy, this growing market left unregulated and without an overarching plan is placing more pressure on rural communities. Average farmland prices in Great Britain rose 6.2% in 2021, and 31% in Scotland alone. If carbon offsetting is not rigorously considered alongside local and regional planning, and delivered in line with best practice, it risks widening rural socioeconomic inequality, pricing out rural residents without creating local opportunities. This sits at odds with the UK Government’s rural regeneration and ‘Levelling Up’ agenda.

In addition to the adverse economic impacts of carbon offsetting, these schemes can also have significant ecological repercussions, on ecosystem function, biodiversity, and sense of place – such as planting monoculture tree farms on wildflower-rich grasslands or peatlands. Thus, for major businesses looking to meet net zero targets, acquiring land for tree planting may have unintended harmful consequences.

A Holistic Approach

In the short term, the UK Government could address this issue through the introduction of tighter land ownership regulations, cutting tax breaks for companies purchasing large estates, and requiring the delivery of land management plans and public interest assessments.

To ensure that the transition towards net zero also delivers wide socioeconomic and ecological benefits, a government-driven spatial strategy, which considers all potential demands on land and can deliver nature-positive outcomes at scale, whilst levelling up the UK, is urgently needed.

For example, in Scotland the Affric Highlands is a carbon offsetting initiative which brings together businesses and people to protect and rewild the central Highlands. Rather than selling land to corporations without positively impacting local communities, the project is committing to building a circular local economy with money generated from its carbon credits supporting local industries as well as providing more habitat for wildlife.

Likewise, developing principles of best practice can help us avoid some of the most detrimental outcomes of carbon offsetting. The ‘Biodiversity Net Gain: Good Practice Principles for Development’, a voluntary industry best practice, is a good example of how an emerging market can be made to deliver to a required standard. For carbon offsetting, the Oxford Offsetting Principles have taken a step in the right direction by setting out a mitigation hierarchy for offsetting:

  1. Prioritise reducing your own emissions first, ensure the environmental integrity of any offsets used, and disclose how offsets are used
  2. Shift offsetting towards carbon removal, where offsets directly remove carbon from the atmosphere
  3. Shift offsetting towards long-lived storage, which removes carbon from the atmosphere permanently or almost permanently
  4. Support for the development of a market for net zero aligned offsets (which also promotes the restoration and protection of a wide range of natural and semi-natural ecosystems).

Comprehensive best practice guidance should go further and align carbon offsetting with developing rural economies, regeneration and ‘Levelling Up.’ The delivery of localised multi-capital benefits should be demonstrated through the monitoring of key performance indicators, driven by an integrated government development plan. Finally, businesses and local partners should seek consultation to better understand the social and economic impacts of carbon offsetting schemes, and whether the costs outweigh the benefits.

Ultimately, to sustainably transition to net zero, an integrated approach is required to merge carbon offsetting with promoting rural economies and natural ecosystems.  Only in this way can the land be successfully used for carbon sequestration, protecting nature and supporting people.

Authors: Jenny Merriman (Associate Director, Biodiversity & Natural Capital) and Vaughn Lewis (Assistant Nature-based Solutions Consultant, Biodiversity & Natural Capital) at WSP, a world leading engineering professional services consulting firm.

To find out more about how WSP is helping to protect and enhance nature alongside businesses and communities, please visit our webpage here.

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