Marketing

Carbon offsets: Brands keep buying ‘em, but they might be counterproductive

Companies ranging from Microsoft to JetBlue have purchased carbon offsets, but they come with their own complexities—and some say they’re “delaying urgent change.”
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Like awkward TikToks and campaigns featuring C-list celebrity cameos, brands can’t seem to get enough of carbon offsets.

In September, Delta Air Lines debuted a campaign to show off its carbon-neutrality commitment, citing offsets as something that’ll help it get there. Other brands who have stepped up commitments to offset carbon emissions have included Southwest Airlines, Apple, JetBlue, Google, and Microsoft. Oh, and BP and Shell.

Carbon what? A carbon offset is an investment made to effectively cancel out the carbon output of an individual or a business.

  • Feeling guilty about that flight to Europe? For about $51, a traveler can “offset” a roundtrip flight between New York and London through third-party orgs.
  • That cash is supposed to be used to fund projects like reforestation and tree preservation efforts.
  • “One carbon-offset credit supposedly equals one metric ton of carbon dioxide...removed from the air,” per CNBC.

It’s been a topic of discussion at COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference that ends today, where legislators and activists have debated the creation of carbon markets, where offsetting credits could be traded among countries.

But, but, but: Climate activists argue that offsets are flawed, a magic bullet that allows the biggest companies to pay for their pollution without, you know, polluting less.

“The principle of offsetting is to say that, if you reduce emissions in the atmosphere in some way, then I can continue polluting—I just pay to reduce those emissions,” Teresa Anderson, a climate policy coordinator at ActionAid International, told Marketing Brew. “It’s hard to do it right, and it’s impossible to do it right at scale...these offsets are delaying urgent change.”

There may be some credence to these criticisms:

  • California’s wildfires have burned up trees reserved for offsets, according to nonprofit media org Grist.
  • JP Morgan, Disney, and BlackRock were found to have bought offsets for land that was not at risk in the first place through the Nature Conservancy, meaning less carbon was actually offset than they were getting credit for, Bloomberg reported.

“We believe that carbon offsets are only one of the tools in the toolbox,” Jodi Manning, VP and director of marketing and partnerships for carbon-offsetting nonprofit Cool Effect, told us. “The most important thing that any of us can do” is scale back emissions in the first place, she explained.

Started in 2015, Cool Effect has partnered with American Airlines, Twitter, and Salesforce on carbon-offsetting initiatives.

“Every individual organization and business will still have some unabated emissions, and that’s where a good, quality carbon offset can come in,” she said. “We believe only in carbon credits that are 100% additional and permanent, meaning it’s a permanent reduction of greenhouse gas no matter what it is.”—RB

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