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Can we offset global CO2 emissions?

Today’s topic: Can we offset global CO2 emissions to buy ourselves more time to mitigate climate change? I recently calculated my carbon footprint using CoolClimate and also took a look at the viability of offsetting your carbon footprint. I noticed how cheap it is to offset CO2 emissions:

It costs roughly $10 to offset 1 tonne of CO2 (the amount generated by a return flight from the US to Europe).

Global emissions are around 40 Gt CO2 per year – that’s 40 billion metric tonnes of CO2 around the planet.

As mentioned before, if we want a 50% chance of meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of staying below 1.5°C global warming, we should keep the total emissions (starting from 2020) below 500 Gt CO2. See my post on the IPCC 2021 climate change report for more numbers on this.

By the end of this year we’ll have emitted almost one sixth of that 500 Gt CO2 budget (around 80 Gt CO2) and our chances of keeping global warming below 1.5°C become slimmer with each passing year, unless something big is done.

So here’s what I’m getting at…

What’s the cost of offsetting all global CO2 emissions?

This is a somewhat naïve calculation (I’ll explain why, later) but bear with me for now.

If you and I can offset 1 tonne of CO2 emissions for $10 then it would cost only $400 billion to offset our annual global emissions of 40 Gt CO2.

Now that may sounds like a lot of money, but bear in mind that since the start of the Covid pandemic, the US spent close to $4 trillion on financial support and recovery – although some sources suggest that the spending has been closer to $8 trillion. Spending has been widely criticized for favoring more wealthy citizens and corporations.

The US is also about to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which does contain a fair amount of climate-related improvements. However, I do wonder how much of the spending will be climate-related on paper only. The largest chunk of the budget goes towards roads, with the following wording:

Repair and rebuild roads and bridges with a focus on climate change mitigation, resilience, equity and safety for all users, including cyclists and pedestrians.

My point is that massive sums of money have been spent since 2020, and this applies globally. Should we not consider spending some cash on offsetting CO2 emissions for the next decade while we get our act together in reducing our ongoing emissions?

And of course it would be a global effort – all countries could be invited to contribute in proportion to their GDP, or some other metric. The cost, globally, would be far less than what has been spent on one year of Covid relief. For example, the US, which is responsible for around 17% of global CO2 emissions, would be responsible for contributing $68 billion to the annual global budget of $400 billion. That’s only around one percent of what the US spent on Covid recovery programs such as Federal Reserve intervention. It’s also a lot less than the US will spend on disaster relief for fires and hurricanes, etc.

Anyway, even if governments of the world didn’t step up (as they generally haven’t been, throughout this crisis) it could all be done without political help. If we divide the annual “CO2 offsetting budget” of $400 billion by the global population, it works out at $50 each, per year. Some would give more than others, of course – many people in the “Global North” would probably be happy to pay $100 per year to avert a global catastrophe.

Then the likes of Bezos, Zuckerberg, Gates and all the celebs who deeply care about the planet could cover a good chunk of it without blinking. This wouldn’t be some politically correct tax – it would literally save the planet by buying more time to curb our emissions.

So what’s the catch?

Well, let me examine the catch in terms of “pessimist” and “optimist” arguments.

Offsetting global CO2 emissions – the pessimist case

Basically, the catch is that even though we can currently offset 1 tonne of CO2 emissions for the very reasonable price of $10, the price tag may increase as we offset more CO2. This was outlined in A complete guide to carbon offsetting, from The Guardian:

The point is simply that the world is full of inexpensive ways to reduce emissions. In theory, if enough people started offsetting, or if governments started acting seriously to tackle global warming, then the price of offsets would gradually rise, as the low-hanging fruit of emissions savings – the easiest and cheapest “quick wins” – would get used up.

I want to point out that The Guardian used the phrase “low-hanging fruit,” not me! Don’t shoot the messenger. Anyhoo, I’m just spitballing here… it might be blue sky thinking but it could be a game changer!

(Maybe we should take that conversation offline.)

So the cost of offsetting our annual global emissions of 40 GtCO2 per year could well cost more than $400 billion. But, if you’ll allow for some optimism here in this pessimist case, some of the CO2 could certainly be offset at $10 per ton of CO2. Perhaps we could offset a quarter of our emissions for $100 billion. That would go a long way.

Offsetting global CO2 emissions – the optimist case

I’m going to take the pessimist case as a given – the current cost of offsetting emissions may increase. Even worse, if you’ll allow for some pessimism here in this optimist case, we may run out of mechanisms for offsetting emissions. Personally, I don’t think that will happen as there are so many ways to creatively offset emissions, many of which offer other benefits too (like cleaner air or restored habitats).

Google engaged a team to figure out the best way to offset emissions and decided that capturing methane is one of the most effective mechanisms. Reducing methane emissions was also highlighted in the recent IPCC climate change report as one of the most immediately effective ways to mitigate climate change.

There would be a range of solutions, such as those pictured below. The beauty of this whole approach is that it can also provide work for people – meaningful work that contributes to something worthwhile. The various offsetting projects, whether providing clean cookstoves, capturing methane, or restoring habitats (to take a few random examples) also provide benefits beyond just climate change mitigation.

This would be such a better recovery plan than providing jobs in Walmart and Amazon warehouses. People don’t want meaningless work that often isn’t even sufficient to pay their bills – they just end up with repetitive strain injuries and no security as they age (I’m reading Nomadland at the moment).

If world leaders got their acts together they could install organized projects that would benefit from economies of scale – like thoughtful tree planting programs that actually work. That way, the price tag for carbon offsetting could be maintained at, or even below, $10 per tonne of CO2 emissions.

Can we offset global CO2 emissions? In short, yes, I think we can totally afford to offset global carbon emissions – at least a good portion of them. This may become an essential need as we are currently not reducing CO2 emissions fast enough. How should it be done?

  1. A global fund and program to offset CO2 emissions.
  2. In the absence of a global fund, we can just take action ourselves by contributing ($100, $50, or whatever you can). The organizations already exist and I’m going to start offsetting this year. I’ll keep you posted on my preferred programs for offsetting your carbon footprint.

Please share this post if you support the idea.

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