Will we achieve the 1.5 degree target with carbon offset projects?

December 5, 2018

On October 8th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report highlighting the consequences of global warming by 1.5°C compared with pre-industrial levels. 91 authors evaluated 6,000 individual studies. The results are both encouraging and alarming: on one hand, it is theoretically still possible to limit global warming. On the other hand, achieving this requires immediate action as well as substantially more drastic measures than political goals have previously envisaged.

This means that we must all do much more. Net greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced to zero by 2050. To achieve this, we must transition to renewable energy for our energy supply; industry, agriculture, and private households must consume far less energy, and transport should also become more efficient. And we need to find ways to bind even more carbon.

In December, the international community will meet in Katowice, Poland, to determine the next steps in the spirit of the Paris Agreement. Another matter at hand is examining the gap between announced ambitions and current political reality. With the previous resolutions made by the governments, we will remain far from even achieving the two-degree target, so the countries will have to present new plans. 

What possibilities does the global community still have to save the climate?

Proposed solutions for carbon abatement

The basic mechanisms of action in climate protection are often summarized as "avoid, reduce, offset". If carbon emissions are to be avoided or reduced – for example in production – a technological transformation must take place in the value chain. In many cases, this is not possible in the short term because the necessary technologies are not yet available, or their use is not yet economical. No alternative to carbon-intensive long-haul flights currently exists either. This means that avoidance or reduction would only be possible through sacrifices.

The option of removing CO2 from the atmosphere – in other words, developing suitable technologies that can bind and store it – presents an alternative. One idea is to cultivate special plants on a large scale that absorb high quantities of carbon. The biomass obtained in this way would be burned and used to generate electricity. The released carbon would be captured and stored underground. 

However, such a procedure is technically complex and thus expensive. Additionally, large areas of land would be required to cultivate biomass, land that would then no longer be available for the cultivation of food. Furthermore, such technologies are often interpreted as an attempt to control nature through technological advancement. These approaches are therefore controversial and also heavily debated among experts. However, nature itself also offers good solutions for binding and storing CO2.

Protecting nature – directly or indirectly

Forests, especially the rainforest, are the most important carbon sinks on earth. The older the forest, the more carbon dioxide it binds. Nevertheless, all over the world, forests are cleared every day, often industrially, and in many countries simply illegally. Every year, 130 million hectares of forest disappear. Protecting and preserving these forests represents the first logical step in counteracting the rise in carbon emissions. From a purely technical point of view, this is much simpler than complex carbon dioxide retrieval methods. In this sense, the obstacles to forest conservation are "only" economic, political, and social challenges. But precisely these are extremely difficult to overcome, perhaps even more difficult than developing new technologies for binding CO2. In Germany, this was underscored by the case of the Hambach Forest, where contradictions between and the conflicting goals of climate protection and economic policy have become visible in a drastic way, even in a highly industrialized country like Germany.  

Effective forest conservation programs are therefore essential to achieving our goals. Particularly in the area of certified carbon offset projects, programs that directly contribute to protecting and conserving our natural resources from the outset exist worldwide. In Papua New Guinea, for example, an area of 600,000 hectares of primary rainforest was cleared by the government for industrial deforestation. The indigenous people resisted this decision and succeeded in protecting the area and retaining it as their home. The project also helps preserve the enormous local biodiversity – and saves 400,000 tons of CO2 per year.

It also makes sense to tackle the causes of the problem directly and ask why forests and natural resources are exploited in a specific region. The answer is often as simple as it is sobering: because locals have no alternative and depend on these processes for survival. Here too, carbon offset projects offer solutions through technology transfer. In the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, illegally produced charcoal from the surrounding forests is the only available source of energy for most people. Only 3% of the population have access to electricity. A small run-of-river power plant has made a considerable difference: for the first time, more people have access to electricity. This has already led to local economic development – small businesses and manufactories have been founded. The effects are tremendous because suddenly, work is available. Work gives individuals prospects, making them less willing to join the militias in the civil war. This is particularly important in this war-torn region that desperately needs peace. Thanks to decreased charcoal consumption, the forest and thus the habitats of endangered animal species are preserved. After all, this area is still home to mountain gorillas and other endangered animals. Since hydropower generates no direct emissions, the project saves carbon emissions that would otherwise have been caused by burning wood or coal for energy. As a result, it was certified as a carbon offset project and is financed by climate protection means. 

By definition, carbon offset projects thus demonstrably save carbon emissions that would have unavoidably been caused without the project. This mechanism, which is available to us in many parts of the world today, can function as the "missing link" to actually achieving our climate goals. This is ultimately made possible by companies that take their own responsibility seriously and offset the carbon emissions of their products – of course, in combination with their own local reduction and avoidance measures. And by consumers who steer towards climate neutral products and services. 

Companies can get involved as multipliers

If companies commit to offsetting the carbon emissions of their products by supporting carbon offset projects, this results in an additional effect: they extend their reach through their customers. This applies to both B2B and B2C commerce. In this way, consumers can also support climate protection and select climate neutral products -- offered by a growing number of retail chains. For example, customers can choose climate neutral natural cosmetics by i+m at drugstores and organic specialist stores, climate neutral hiking boots from LIDL, climate neutral craft calendars from dm, and many more products that directly contribute to climate protection. 

Carbon offset projects according to personal preferences

Companies are attaching increasing importance to creating a link between their own value chain and the chosen carbon offset project. Let's look at the example of i+m natural cosmetics again. The company has a direct connection to Zambia, where they founded a women's shelter in 2014 and have been developing and financially supporting it ever since. To achieve climate neutrality, they also wanted to support a carbon offset project there: the ClimatePartner project for forest protection in the southeastern part of the country. In order to preserve the forest, the project has created alternative income opportunities for around 8,300 locals. Beforehand, they had no other option but to live off illegal deforestation.  

All ClimatePartner carbon offset projects yield positive social effects in addition to climate protection: they help improve the living conditions of populations in the poorest parts of the world. Through jobs and education, improved infrastructure, health care, drinking water, clean air, or many other improvements. Just like i+m, we look for projects for our customers that fit the individual situation of the company. That is why we have carefully selected many projects and put together a broad portfolio. We offer projects in South America, Asia, and Africa, as well as all common climate protection technologies, from forest protection and renewable energy to efficient cooking stoves and clean drinking water.  

Everyone benefits

Carbon offset projects are necessary to limit global warming. But companies also directly benefit from their commitment. A study by PwC (2015) shows that consumers prefer sustainable companies: 8 out of 10 Germans consider a company’s environmental policy when buying products. Two-thirds of the German population are willing to pay more for climate friendly products.