Carbon offsetting is increasingly being used by sectors like aviation as a way to meet net zero carbon emissions by 2050. But a new policy insight by the think tank Green Alliance says that, as the integrity of current carbon offset schemes is questionable, there is no guarantee that a future increase in offsetting will be effective at tackling climate change .
It says the only way to ensure the quality and claims of offset schemes is through a national ‘office for carbon removal’. The study highlights that well run offset schemes could provide the UK with a huge new source of funding for nature restoration.
Existing carbon offset schemes have been widely criticised for their poor environmental credentials. They are badly regulated and rarely deliver what they promise. Seventy three per cent of credits created under the current biggest carbon offsetting scheme, the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, are unlikely to lead to real additional carbon reductions or removals . This has led to accusations that offsetting is a licence to continue polluting and delay efforts to reduce emissions.
However, as the economy recovers from the current crisis, the increasing purchase of carbon credits by airlines could be a new source of funding for nature restoration in the UK. Under a new carbon offsetting scheme, known as CORSIA, airlines are expected to spend between £4 billion and £18 billion per year on carbon credits globally by 2035 .
The report argues that, in its current form, CORSIA is not ambitious enough to make the necessary contribution to meeting the global goal set by the Paris climate agreement, or the UK’s legal net zero carbon obligation, and must be strengthened.
There is enormous scope for a much higher level of carbon sequestration in the UK, through tree planting, peatland restoration and other activities like agroforestry and soil management. As a high carbon sector, aviation represents a huge potential source of support as it buys carbon credits to offset its impact.
At a carbon price of £10 per tonne, the market value of natural carbon sequestration by 2030 is estimated at around £87 million per year . Not all sequestration will be sold as carbon credits, but this is still significant extra funding on top of the government Nature for Climate Fund’s £640 million over five years.
The report says that, to avoid backlash and ensure the credibility of schemes, it is necessary to guarantee that offsets are verifiable carbon removals. It says the government must:
Regulate and approve high quality carbon offset projects. As the UK has strong regulatory and legal structures, it will be able to ensure reliable offsetting for sectors like aviation, using schemes such as the Woodland Carbon Code to accredit offsets. A new ‘office for carbon removal’ should be given the role of verification and oversight to ensure offsets are genuinely robust, measurable and benefit the environment.
Set a limit on the number of nature-based carbon credits any one sector can buy. This will prevent ‘offset hungry’ sectors like aviation from buying up all the carbon credits, so there are none left for sectors like agriculture which will also need them to achieve net zero emissions.
Set two separate targets: one for emissions reductions and one for carbon removals, rather than a single net zero target.
This would avoid offsetting causing delays in direct emissions reduction. UK aviation emissions will have to come down by 42 per cent, from 36.5 MtCO2 in 2017, to 21 MtCO2 or less in 2050 for there to be enough offsets available to achieve net zero aviation in the UK by 2050. Direct emission cuts can be achieved by measures such as using less polluting fuels and better demand management.
James Elliott, policy adviser at Green Alliance said:
“Offsetting has become a dirty word for environmentalists because of bad carbon credit schemes and the risk it will be used as an excuse to keep polluting.
But when you look at the numbers it’s obvious we have to remove and store a huge amount of CO2 from the atmosphere if we are to reach net zero and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Boosting tree planting and low carbon farming, alongside developing other carbon removal technologies, like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, is an urgent priority.
Our proposals would enable the UK to take advantage of a substantial new funding stream for nature via aviation offsetting, while showing the world how these schemes can be done well.”
Notes for editors
About Green Alliance
Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank, focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. With a track record of over 40 years, Green Alliance has worked with the most influential leaders from the NGO, business, academic and political communities. Our work generates new thinking and dialogue, and has increased political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK. www.green-alliance.org.uk
 Download the full report: The flight path to net zero: Making the most of nature based carbon offsetting
This work was supported by Heathrow. As with all our work, we retain editorial control and independence over the content and conclusions.
 Only 7 per cent of credits created under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism have a high likelihood of being additional and accurately estimated, compared to 73 per cent with are unlikely to be additional and accurate. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/sites/clima/files/ets/docs/clean_dev_mechanism_en.pdf
 www.icao.int/Meetings/HLM-MBM/Pages/FAQ3.aspx. Accessed 30 September 2019. Original figures in USD, converted to GBP using yearly average exchange rate to 31 March 2019. The impacts of the current Covid-19 pandemic on future aviation offsetting are currently unclear.
 Based on an estimated 8.7 MtCO2e sequestration in soils and new trees per year by 2030.