Offsetting: Can you see the wood for the trees? A look at the pros and cons of offsetting by JRP’s Senior Net Zero and Sustainability Consultant, Elinor Kershaw

Last updated: 9th February 2023

Poor quality “forest protection” offsets, human rights issues associated with indigenous populations and the use of carbon credits as a ‘quick fix’ to achieving Net Zero have all contributed to damaging the perceived worth of offsetting as a valuable tool in the fight against climate change. Despite all this, offsetting still has an important role to play in long term Net Zero

Although we always recommend carbon offsetting is only used as a last resort when all other opportunities to reduce emissions have been exploited, or as a short-term measure while other measures are being progressed, offsetting still has an important role to play in long term Net Zero


Our approach and recommendation, aligned with the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) is to always focus on reduction first – the priority is to eliminate emissions at source where you can either control directly or influence indirectly through the value chain, which could be through:

·     Energy efficiency throughout value chain

·     Resource efficiency and maximising retention of materials through circular economy approaches

Where offsetting or insetting* are agreed. e.g. to add impact whilst ALSO working to reduce primary emissions, these should focus on:

·     Primary emissions from burning things (e.g. coal, oil, gas) are avoided, substantially reduced or eliminated

·     Emissions impact reduced e.g. methane capture for biogas, both avoiding methane release and replacing alternative fuel source

·     Supporting sustainable emissions removals e.g. wetland/peatland restoration/expansion and planting schemes with added biodiversity and nature recovery benefits

If the use of forest/planting schemes is being considered, caution is advised as they have associated risks:

·     New tree planting does not remove carbon immediately, so cannot give “credits” until in the middle of the growth phase.

·     Planting locations are important – some land types will release locked away carbon when trees are planted, adding to the problem rather than functioning as an offset

·     These schemes need a plantation approach to maintain and manage long term sequestered carbon once the trees are mature.

·     Planted areas may be at risk of destruction due to future policy change

·     Climate change is increasing risks of drought, flooding and wildfires which all affect planted trees and the long-term security of “credits” purchased today.

In summary, any organisation or state level actor should prioritise emissions reductions not offsets, but if offsets are being considered, a holistic approach should be taken. This means considering all the potential environmental and social impacts and only using reputable, certified schemes such as Gold Standard which was established in 2003 by WWF and other international NGOs to ensure projects that reduced carbon emissions featured the highest levels of environmental integrity and also contributed to sustainable development. Those looking for UK schemes should ensure they are part of the UK Land Carbon Registry.

*Insetting: for more information on offsetting and insetting, please request our factsheet here.

For more information, call 0800 6127 567 or email [email protected].

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