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Carbon offsets – a silver bullet for schools’ carbon footprint or a classic case of greenwashing?

23 / 08 / 2023
By Metanoia

In a recent conversation with Metanoia, a teacher at an international school in Spain shared that 12th-grade students staged a protest in response to their school’s proposal to support a carbon offsetting project, arguing that it was not addressing the root problems. They recognised that the project, albeit proposed with good intentions, was in fact just a quick and rather ineffective attempt by the school to mitigate its environmental impact. 

Sustainability-conscious students know that carbon offsets are no silver bullet and understand the importance of tackling school-level issues first, which arguably impact them directly, instead of throwing money at intangible and distant projects. When considering this, one question inevitably arises – what should schools’ real priorities be? 

In this article, we take a look at why carbon offsets are controversial and how schools should only use them as part of a wider carbon-reduction strategy.


What Are Carbon Offsets And Why Do We Use Them?


Offsetting projects are initiatives designed to help reduce or compensate for greenhouse gas emissions or other negative environmental impacts. 

These projects can take various forms. For example, reforestation projects involve planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which helps offset the emissions produced elsewhere. Renewable energy projects, such as building wind or solar farms, help reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Other projects may focus on improving energy efficiency, promoting sustainable agriculture, or investing in cleaner technologies.

When individuals, companies, or organizations participate in offsetting, they calculate the amount of emissions they produce and invest in offset projects to reduce an equivalent amount of emissions. This way, they aim to neutralise – or “offset” – their overall impact on the environment.

Offsetting projects have never been so popular and an ever-increasing number of companies and institutions now claim to be decreasing their carbon footprint through carbon offsets. The voluntary carbon-offset market is expected to grow from US$2 billion in 2021 to around $10-40 billion in 2030, transacting 0.5-1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, compared with 500 million tonnes currently. By mid-century, it is expected to reach a value of over $250 billion.  


Why Are Offsetting Projects Controversial?


Offsetting projects are more often than not associated with ‘greenwashing’, which occurs when companies or institutions spend more time and money on marketing themselves as being sustainable than on actually minimising their environmental impact. 

Oftentimes, offsetting projects generate credits from emission reduction or removal programmes that would have occurred regardless of the company’s investments, meaning the project has no real additionality in lowering emissions. A 2021 analysis by MIT Technology Review and ProPublica uncovered how The Massachusetts Audubon Society received carbon credits for conserving forests that were never in danger of being cut down; and when companies like Shell, Phillips 66, and the Southern California Gas Company bought these credits as part of their carbon offset programme, they failed to offset their emissions due to this crucial factor but still profited immensely from it. 

Greenwashing also occurs when a company’s trade reduction is counted twice – once by the company offsetting its emissions and again by the project’s host country when reporting its nationally determined contributions (NCDs) or climate targets, while, in reality, only one reduction occurred.


Offsetting Projects Are No Silver Bullet


There is a unanimous consensus among the scientific community that emissions are the main culprit of global warming. In 2021, polluting industries, institutions, households, and even individuals were responsible for a staggering 37.12 billion metric tons (GtCO₂) of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions globally. In 2022, the number reached a historic-high level: 37.5 GtCO₂. 

And because emissions translate into global warming, it came as no surprise that last year was the sixth warmest year since 1880, as Earth’s average land and ocean surface temperature was 0.86C (1.55F) above the 20th-century average of 13.9C (57.0F). As if that wasn’t enough, experts now predict that global average surface temperatures in 2023 are most likely to be slightly warmer than in 2022

What all this means is quite simple. We are rapidly approaching the critical 1.5C threshold beyond which we would start experiencing a cascade of increasingly catastrophic and potentially irreversible impacts. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres put it: “We are hurtling towards disaster, eyes wide open… It’s time to wake up and step up.” 

Despite still much obstinate and widespread denial, the way out is obvious: we must cut emissions and the need to do so has never been more urgent. Only once we have done everything we can to shrink our carbon footprint to the minimum should we consider offsetting the balance. As Swetha Sekhar of Ecolytics argues: “If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn’t first grab a mop. You would turn off the tap”.

As Greenpeace puts it: “Offsetting projects simply don’t deliver what we need – a reduction in the carbon emissions entering the atmosphere. Instead, they’re a distraction from the real solutions to climate change.”

Companies and institutions might resort to such projects to improve their image and show the public that they care about sustainability when in reality, they are using them to cheat their way out of reducing their carbon footprint.

In recent years, educational institutions around the world have jumped on the bandwagon. Ahead of COP26 in 2021, over 1,000 universities and colleges from 68 countries pledged to half their emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by mid-century. And the number is growing. Schools are finally starting to acknowledge that they, too, are contributing to climate change. But as we have seen in this article, while carbon offsetting is an indispensable instrument to help schools transition to net zero, doing this alone means failing to accept the unpleasant reality of global warming.


Schools’ Offsetting Projects Should Be Part of a Wider Strategy


By choosing to support offsetting projects, schools are effectively bypassing the main issue: their carbon footprint. From transportation and electricity usage to canteen meals and water consumption, every school – big or small – generates a tremendous amount of emissions. 

We at Metanoia believe that a sustainable school is one that understands how it can improve its practices and adopt a more environmentally friendly approach to life on campus, thus tackling the problem at its source.

Metanoia’s Whole School Sustainability Audit provides schools with authentic opportunities to reduce the environmental footprint and inspire the whole school community to change their behaviours through more tangible actions. By conducting a thorough assessment of every aspect of a school, we can help schools identify over 100 actionable recommendations to improve sustainability across all aspects – from the food served in the canteen and the impact of school-related transportation to water and electricity consumption and, of course, the curriculum. 

We also strive to provide authentic learning opportunities for students. While educating young people about environmental problems is non-negotiable, schools should simultaneously focus on modelling sustainability solutions and promoting eco-literacy. The campus – itself a source of emissions, pollution, and waste – can become a living laboratory for its students, providing a tangible and accessible environment for students to actively engage in sustainability practices. By involving students in real-life projects and initiatives, they can directly experience and understand the concepts of energy conservation, waste reduction, and sustainable living. This hands-on learning approach enhances their understanding, fosters a sense of personal responsibility towards the environment, and empowers students to make informed choices that positively impact their immediate surroundings.


The Verdict


Offsetting projects are part of broader efforts to address climate change and environmental sustainability. However, while they can help mitigate the effects of certain activities, schools should not see them as a substitute for reducing emissions at their source or adopting sustainable practices directly. Instead of simply throwing money at the problem, schools should use the campus as a living laboratory, promote sustainable education, and cultivate sustainable mindsets in young people. By integrating sustainability practices into the school environment, students develop lifelong habits and behaviours that prioritise environmental stewardship. When sustainable practices become a routine part of their daily lives at school, it increases the likelihood of carrying those habits into their homes and communities. This ripple effect can lead to broader positive environmental change beyond the school campus.



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Emma graduated with distinction from Rhodes University with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and Biochemistry. Since graduating, she has worked in the education sector throughout Asia.

She has experience in Nature-based Solutions for Disaster and Climate Resilience, SDG-Academy. In Emma’s spare time she wrote for an environmental think-tank, covering topics ranging from sustainable diets and lifestyles to biodiversity loss and conservation initiatives. Through her work at Metanoia, Emma is fulfilling a lifelong ambition of working in sustainability for education. She is currently working on applied sustainability audits in schools with the aim of helping them become net-zero institutions.

Her areas of interest include sustainability education, biodiversity loss, sustainable diets, and plastic pollution.

Kiran is an Environment and Sustainability masters graduate from Monash University, Australia. As a former digital marketer, she has experience in project management, campaign execution and brand development for multiple start-up companies.

Through Metanoia, she has applied her knowledge in sustainability communications and stakeholder engagement to drive behaviour change and whole school engagement within schools across Asia. Kiran also brings waste expertise to the team from auditing, reporting and providing innovative and circular solutions. Outside of work, Kiran likes to engage in environmental activism; from working with non-profits to reduce plastic pollution, to advocating for animal rights.

Her passion lies in water sanitation and sustainable agricultural practices.