‘Carbon offsets – brilliant or bulls**t?’ and how to communicate it effectively?

‘Carbon offsets – brilliant or bulls**t?’ and how to communicate it effectively?
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I recently had the pleasure of chairing a debate hosted by the PRCA entitled ‘Carbon offsets – brilliant or bulls**t?’ In this write up of the discussion, we’ll cover why carbon offsetting is being employed by businesses today; whether it should feature in your organisation’s Environmental, Social and Corporate governance (ESG) strategy; and how to communicate this complex topic in a way your stakeholders will connect with.

What is carbon offsetting?

Let’s begin with a brief overview of carbon offsetting today. Carbon offsetting began as a practice at the Kyoto protocol in 1997, where all developed countries were mandated to report on their carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. But what does carbon offsetting really mean?

David Griggs, President of the Royal Meteorological Society, joined the panel discussion and confessed: “To understand carbon offsetting, you need to understand a little bit about climate change.”

Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas contributing to climate change and is emitted through the burning of fossil fuels. The only way to stop the Earth’s warming temperatures, therefore, is to stop emitting greenhouses gases into the atmosphere. Griggs warned that we must be proactive on this issue, as carbon dioxide can linger in the atmosphere for over 100 years.

Defining net zero

‘Net zero’ is a phrase you’ve probably heard thrown around when it comes to people and planet policies. Net zero simply means that an organisation is not going to emit any carbon into the atmosphere, or if it does, it’s going to adopt measures to make sure that it sucks the same amount of carbon out of the atmosphere. This is known as offsetting.

This can be achieved through the actions of an organisation, such as exclusively using renewable energy. However, it’s very difficult for organisations to entirely eliminate their carbon emissions. Some emissions may be fundamental to the way a business is run, and that’s where offsetting comes in.

Should carbon offsetting be in your ESG communications plan?

South Pole is a sustainable solutions company. Their Head of Public Affairs, Dr Maria Carvalho, who joined the panel, had this to say: “What you are offsetting are only emissions that you cannot stop emitting.” This may be due to a current lack of technologies or options available.

Over time, as more solutions emerge, a business’s need to offset should reduce. Whilst it does still need to offset, they can do this by engaging carbon project developers, which are becoming more prolific as the demand for offsetting increases. Since 2019, there has been a 700% increase in businesses enquiring into carbon offsetting.

This may be encouraging, but Dr Maria reinforced that carbon offsetting should indicate that a company is doing everything they can when it comes to people and planet. Offsetting is the last solution for irremovable emissions.

Ready to take your ESG communications plan to the next level? Get in touch with Communique today to gain the expertise of our global team. We will help your business to define, translate and clarify your ESG strategy into an actionable plan to drive your organisation forward.

The challenges of communicating carbon offsets

Chris Leeds is Head of Carbon Markets Development at Standard Chartered Bank and was an esteemed participant of the panel debate. He said that organisations “cannot buy [their] way out” when it comes to carbon offsetting. “You’ve [still] got to reduce your own emissions as much as you can,” he warned.

The biggest issue is the lack of urgency from businesses. Over 2000 companies around the world have committed to net zero, Leeds shared, but many aren’t aiming to get there until at least 2050, which undermines the impact of their pledge. “Any CEO could say that,” he added, “because they know they’re not going to be around in 2050.” Instead, he urged communications professionals to focus not on the pledge, but on their pathway to net zero. What actions will be taken in the next week, month, or year?

Another complicating factor in carbon offsetting is the issue of additionality, which David Griggs of the Royal Meteorological Society defines as: “Would the reduction in carbon emission have happened anyway, without your intervention?” This is particularly pertinent for those projects in developing countries, which often takes place by Griggs’s own admission that “you can get more carbon for your buck” in poorer locations. However, technological advancements may already be on their way to these places, meaning better solutions would have been adopted in due course.

Therefore, doing an assessment of additionality will help your organisation to invest in projects that are not only valid today but are safeguarded against what would have happened in a business-as-usual environment anyway, Griggs advised.

It’s also important to remember that carbon offsetting is an issue that keeps evolving with the adoption of new technologies, such as decentralised cryptocurrencies. The main challenge with this, said Dr Carvalho of South Pole, is that it can be difficult to identify the key decision maker in an infrastructure such as Bitcoin, who determines the amount of electricity used and where the energy is coming from.

If you’re an organisation who wants to use cryptocurrencies, she said, “You have to ask yourself: is this the best way to trade my currency/commodity or is there another way to do it?” If you work within the industry, she advised professionals to look at their organisation’s energy consumption overall and make the change to servers that are powered by renewable energy.

How should we communicate carbon offsetting?

So, where do we start when communicating this complex issue? David Griggs summed it up aptly by saying: “Don’t have paralysis by analysis. Just get on and do it! Don’t use criticism of offsets as an excuse not to reduce your emissions and then offset the emissions you can’t remove.”

South Pole’s Dr Carvalho added: “Align the impact of your offsetting with your company’s ethos.” However, she stressed that if organisations are offsetting, it should only be one part of a broader climate strategy.

Meanwhile, Chris Leeds championed authenticity: “Don’t make claims that aren’t true. Be clear about what you’re actually doing, which is contributing money to reduce emissions that you can’t.”

Along with that important advice, I added to the discussion that transparency and honesty are key. I also advised the use of simple examples. Say, for instance, that your organisation is reducing emissions by a million tonnes, what does that look like? Show your audience the impact of your actions through visualisation.

What’s next?

It’s clear that clarity in communications around carbon offsetting is going to become even more important as we move forward. Therefore, understanding existing legislation is crucial to ensuring your communications hold up. Six countries in the world, including the UK, have created legislation relating to the types of claims you can make and what support you need for those claims, to enforce a standardisation of communication.

However, customer-centric messaging isn’t the only issue that needs addressing here for communications professionals. The next major challenge is reporting, and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is currently creating more standards for what you need to report in order to be transparent and accountable in what you’re saying. The aim is that a stakeholder can look at a company and see veracity in what they’re communicating or be able to identify and report that it’s unclear.

As communicators, it is our responsibility to navigate our organisations through the murky waters of carbon offsetting as a core component of an integrated, cohesive ESG communications strategy. At Communique, we can help you do just that.

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