The climate buzzword “net-zero” has recently taken over headlines as major fossil fuel companies, clothing brands, tech corporations, and more announce commitments to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the upcoming decades.
Achieving global carbon neutrality would be a major step towards the goal set at the 2015 Paris Agreement to cap global warming at a 1.5℃ increase from pre-industrial times before 2050. This target was determined by an international panel of scientists and is necessary to avoid the worst outcomes of climate destruction.
However, a 2023 study from UK-based climate group Carbon Brief found that ⅔ of companies with net-zero targets are relying on carbon offsets to reach these pledges. Carbon offsets are credits used to represent one ton of CO2 reduced from the atmosphere that can be traded between those releasing emissions and those removing CO2. In other words, corporations with high emissions rates invest in outside environmental projects that are reducing carbon levels elsewhere, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies or renewable energy initiatives.
This process generates a pattern of emitting and removing that does not tackle the causes of climate change throughout the supply chain. Unfortunately, many carbon reduction projects fail to reach their predicted goals, meaning that companies are underestimating their net emissions. While CCS developments offer promising opportunities to take CO2 out of the atmosphere, they are not feasibly scalable at the level needed to drastically reduce the greenhouse effect.
Rather than trying to compensate for continuing emissions through carbon offset programs, we should look to carbon insets as the way of the future. Insets are internal measures taken within a corporation’s production and supply chain to decrease the carbon footprint of that company and support the rehabilitation of natural carbon sinks (like forests, soils, oceans, etc.). This includes shifting manufacturing methods to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, changing materials used to opt for climate-friendly options, growing or building products locally to reduce transportation-related emissions, and investing in company-led environmental initiatives and natural restoration projects that will benefit the local ecosystems and communities.
Carbon offsets may offer a band-aid solution to the pressing challenge of global warming, but they do not fix the issues in our production system that have brought the world to this dire point. The retroactive removal of gasses from the atmosphere cannot justify the continued exploitation of natural resources and disruption of ecosystems if we are seeking long-term success for the planet.
If climate change continues in the direction it is heading, there is no way we can continue producing, consuming, and living the way that we do now. Many industries will inevitably be abandoned if they are not able to adapt, but food is a non-negotiable commodity. The future of sustainable agriculture should be focused on reducing emissions throughout the production cycle, not cleaning up the mess of carbon afterwards.