Constant undermining of carbon offsets is causing net-zero ambitions to be ‘thwarted by fear’, says Simon Heppner.
The Guardian report last month on the challenges faced by the voluntary carbon market raised questions (again) about the role of carbon offsets in corporate climate strategy. This month the same outlet reported how the UK advertising watchdog was launching stricter enforcement of terms like carbon neutral amid the concerns over offsets. It’s an anti-greenwash bandwagon that’s all too easy to jump on, but as commentators from all quarters pile in, are we in danger of the mob smothering the flame: is ‘green-wagoning’ derailing net-zero?
Carbon offsets are an essential part of any credible corporate net-zero plan – no question. Yet those that provide and use them, find themselves under repeated attack in the press, as the veracity of the claims they make is questioned. There’s a point, however, at which repeated media scrutiny serves not to catalyse often needed improvement in the integrity of offsetting schemes. Instead, the persistent chipping away serves only to undermine the credibility of offsetting per se, and cause those businesses looking to make a net-zero commitment to question whether it will just expose them – like so many others – to accusations of greenwashing.
Voluntary carbon markets are still evolving. Like many nascent markets, they are still to be found wanting in some aspects of governance and efficiency that develop with maturity. Nature-based solutions will inevitably be subject to the unpredictable impacts of the natural world and, like venture capitalists, those of us working for net-zero solutions need to accept that some investments will fail, and diversify accordingly to manage risk.
Maybe media scrutiny around offsetting would be more helpfully deployed around the ‘when’, for example ‘when would we like businesses to voluntarily allocate capital to nature-based action; now, or in 2050?”
There is only one sane answer to this, but the science-base targets initiative’s 2050 narrative has taken hold to such an extent that the default response to any business recognising the urgency of the situation and taking action now by investing in nature-based solutions is that they will be considered greenwash-guilty.
But there is nothing to be gained when we allow net-zero ambitions to be thwarted by fear. Every week, I sit in business meetings confronting leadership teams with the hard facts that, no matter what levers they pull internally, they are unlikely to hit their high ambition scenario of 90% reductions by 2050.
They could decide, since no discernible route forward exists, to walk away from their net-zero commitment. Or, they can be encouraged to use targets as they should be used: to challenge the business to find that route, to think beyond and say ‘we don’t know 100% how we’re going to get there, but we have to get there, so we commit to doing so’.
Such a commitment isn’t greenwashing, because what lies behind the ambition is genuine intent to do the right thing. It's this option, not decreasing the ambition level, that is more likely to get us to where we need to be, and we should all be asking whether supporting a narrative that castigates businesses for being ambitious, serves that goal.
Simon Heppner is founder and executive director of Net Zero Now and founder and non-executive director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association.