To Achieve Carbon Neutrality, Are Carbon Offsets Cheating?

Carbon offsets have come under scrutiny lately as a possibly ineffective way of making real climate impact.   August 30, 2022

By Greg Zimmerman, senior contributing editor

Not a day goes by when you don’t hear a claim from a city, corporation, country, or any other entity that they are “carbon neutral” now or will be in the relatively near future. Carbon neutrality is a noble and necessary goal, for sure. But how much of this rhetoric is marketing, and how much is reality? 

This conversation has taken over the culture recently after the comedian John Oliver did a piece on carbon offsets on his show Last Week Tonight. Oliver’s main contention is that carbon offsets are cheating, mostly because many purchased offsets don’t have nearly the climate impact they’re purported to. And therefore, companies are simply buying their way out of doing actual meaningful work to help the climate. The carbon offsets they buy are like a license to continue to emit greenhouse gases. And their claims of “carbon neutrality” are nothing more than greenwashing. 

Facility managers probably innately understand this. If you’re working on an energy project, and you only achieve 75 percent of the savings promised, you don’t get to buy a “credit” to make up that extra 25 percent. And you certainly don’t get to tell everyone you achieved your goal.  

This doesn’t mean, however, that all carbon offsets are bad. If there can be demonstrable and provable results from a carbon offset project – a new windfarm that wouldn’t have been built without the carbon offsets purchase, or a new carbon sequestration project – there is value in those carbon offsets. It’s just that these days that is almost never how the process works. As Oliver points out in his story, the carbon offset market is largely a bunch of fuzzy accounting and somewhat shady marketing.  

That means facility managers are left to do the real work of finding meaningful (and actual!) ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through thoughtful energy efficiency measures, onsite renewables (if possible), and examining supply chain to lower Scope 3 emissions. This is hard work, and not as easy as simply writing a check. But nothing important is ever easy. 

Greg Zimmerman is senior contributing editor for FacilitiesNet.com and Building Operating Management magazine. 


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