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 the 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, it is necessary to transition to renewable energies 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 will be to examine how large the gap between ambition and current political reality is. With the previous resolutions made by the governments, we will remain far from even achieving the two-degree target, so the states 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 have been known for a long time and are often described using the triad "avoid, reduce, compensate". If carbon emissions are to be avoided or reduced – for example in production –, this almost always requires a technological change in the value chain. In many cases, this is not even 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 abstention.

The option of removing already emitted 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 is burned and used to generate electricity. The released carbon is captured and stored underground. 

However, such a procedure is technically complex and correspondingly expensive. Additionally, large areas of land would be required to cultivate biomass which would then no longer be available for the cultivation of food. Furthermore, such technologies always give the impression of an attempt to master nature with an increasing amount of technology. 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 reservoirs 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 halting the rise in carbon emissions. From a purely technical point of view, this is much simpler than complex carbon retrieval methods. In this sense, the obstacles in forest protection 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 can be observed through the example 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 industrialised country like Germany.  

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

It can also make sense to tackle the causes of the problem directly and ask the question of 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, people have access to electricity. This has already led to local economic developments – small businesses and manufactories have been founded. The effects are tremendous, because suddenly, work is available. Those who have work also have prospects and are less willing to join the militias in the civil war. This is particularly important in this region, because peace is perhaps its most important requirement. Less charcoal also means that more forest is spared and that the habitats of endangered animal species are preserved. After all, this area is still home to mountain gorillas and other endangered animals, who now have the chance to survive. Since energy from hydropower is emission-free, the project saves carbon emissions that would otherwise have been caused by the energy from wood or coal. As a result, it was certified as a carbon offset project and is financed by climate protection means. 

Carbon offset projects are therefore always projects that demonstrably save carbon emissions that would have arisen with certainty without the project. This mechanism, which is available to us in many parts of the world today, can function as the "missing link" to help us actually achieve 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 saving and reduction measures. And by consumers whose consumer behaviour specifically guides them to climate neutral products and services. 

Companies can get involved as multipliers

If companies commit to compensating for the carbon emissions of their products through carbon offset projects, this results in an additional effect: they extend their reach through their customers. This applies to both the B2B and the B2C area. In this way, consumers can also support climate protection and select climate neutral products. The number of available retail chains is growing. For example, it now includes 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

Carbon offset projects according to personal preferences

What is becoming increasingly important for companies is the opportunity to create 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. They also wanted to support a carbon offset project for their climate neutrality there: the ClimatePartner project for forest protection in the south-eastern 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 than to live off illegal deforestation. 

All ClimatePartner carbon offset projects yield such 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, infrastructure advancements, 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, Africa, as well as all common climate protection technologies, from forest protection and renewable energies to cooking stoves and 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) showed that consumers prefer sustainable companies: 8 out of 10 Germans consider a company’s environmentally friendly behaviour important when buying products. Two thirds of the German population are willing to pay more for climate-friendly products.