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Carbon Offsetting: A Conversation with ForTomorrow

aware_ spoke to Ruth von Heusinger, Founder & Managing Director at ForTomorrow, to find out about why carbon offsetting is an essential tool to battle climate change and how we can help at an individual level

Living in an industrialized, modern world means we have a lot of amenities and take on daily activities that emit pollutants into the atmosphere. Behaviors such as driving our cars to work while burning fuel, heating our homes in winter, and using electricity extracted from gas or oil, or even generating waste that is not recycled, emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. The amount of GHGs generated by the combination of our daily activities is referred to as our individual Carbon Footprint (United States Environmental Protection Agency). There are many ways in which we can reduce our daily carbon emissions: switching to green energy sources, recycling our waste, moving away from single-use-plastic, reducing our meat consumption, choosing sustainable transportation methods, etc. (Mossy Earth). But even after reducing and changing our behavior, there is remaining CO2 being released into the atmosphere, from the actions we could not avoid, and that is where carbon offsetting comes in.  

“The principle of carbon offset is fairly simple: you decide that you don’t want to be responsible for accelerating climate change, and you’ve already made efforts to reduce your carbon dioxide emissions, so you decide to pay someone else to further reduce your net emissions by planting trees or by taking up low-carbon technologies.” National Park Service 

By paying a third party to reduce emissions that we could not ourselves, we can reach carbon neutrality and move towards reducing emissions worldwide. That can be done by supporting activities that save CO2 elsewhere, such as valid and verified carbon offsetting projects that either help reduce future emissions (investing in clean energy technologies and development or preventing deforestation, restoring forests or supporting protected areas) or help remove CO2 from the atmosphere (such as planting trees, carbon storage, carbons sequestration projects, etc.) (Chapter Zero). 

According to the Carbon Offset Guide, “from a climate change perspective, the effects are the same if an organization: (a) ceases an emission-causing activity; or (b) enables an equivalent emission-reducing activity somewhere else in the world.”

carbon offsetting

ForTomorrow is a nonprofit initiative that supports individuals that want to live a carbon neutral lifestyle, by helping them to reduce their daily emissions and offset the ones that cannot be reduced. They make being climate positive simple with different types of monthly subscriptions that can work at an individual level, at a family unit level or as a single donation. With a single donation, organizations can also offset their environmental footprint. Carbon neutrality does not have to be complicated or require massive changes. With awareness and a desire to change, there are options for everyone to contribute. aware_ spoke to Ruth von Heusinger, Founder & Managing Director at ForTomorrow to find out about why carbon offsetting is an essential tool to battle climate change and how and how we can get involved at an individual level. 

(Note: For simplicity, the interviewee refers to CO2, but actually means CO2 equivalents, i.e. all greenhouse gases.) 

aware_: What is the relation between carbon offsetting and climate change and why is it so important? 

Ruth von Heusinger: In Europe and many other countries, it is not yet possible to live and do business in a carbon neutral way. For example, by using the country’s infrastructure, one is responsible for a certain carbon footprint. In order to offset the climate impact of this footprint, one needs offsetting. With ForTomorrow, we offer an offsetting method that directly reduces CO2 emissions in Europe and in the long term also leads to a climate-neutral infrastructure in Europe. 

aware_: How can carbon offsetting support reaching the goal of carbon neutrality by 2030? 

Ruth von Heusinger: Roughly speaking, offsetting can be divided into two types. One type ensures CO2 reduction, the other removes CO2 from the air.  

In the case of CO2 reduction, a good offsetting method ensures that the CO2 reduction is additional and that a transformation towards climate-neutral life and business is accelerated.  

If CO2 is removed from the air for offsetting, the long-term binding of CO2 is important. With nature-based solutions, biodiversity can also be strengthened.  

If we reduce CO2 and ensure that more CO2 is taken out of the air, we will reach climate neutrality faster from two sides. 

aware_: What are carbon offsetting projects offered by ForTomorrow? 

Ruth von Heusinger: With ForTomorrow, we offer both types of offsetting. The climate impact you achieve by offsetting through ForTomorrow is directly in Europe. We do this by taking away the right to emit CO2 from 11,000 companies, e.g., from coal-fired power plants via the European emissions trading system. This reduces CO2 emissions in Europe and accelerates a climate friendly economy. In addition, we remove CO2 from the atmosphere through reforestation. We plant new forests in Germany on former degraded land. These new forests are protected under German law. This helps us to ensure a long-term impact. Even if there is damage to the new forest, the forest owner is obliged to restore the forest.

carbon offsetting

aware_: How can people know which carbon offsetting projects are genuine, and how can potential prejudices be eliminated? 

Ruth von Heusinger: Sadly, there is no golden rule to follow. That is why with ForTomorrow we decided to use the compliance market for voluntary offsetting. In general, it is saver to offset via a non-profit organization. With a non-profit you can be sure that the purpose of the organization is genuine. 

A good indication is also the price. If you can offset for very little money, you should be suspicious. In the worst case these projects are harmful for the climate. In the past, there were projects that first artificially emitted more CO2 in order to then reduce it and have the reduction credited to them. Luckily, much more frequently these cheap projects are just not additional. There are for example carbon credits from large hydro power plants in China. These plants would run anyway, whether or not you buy the carbon credit from these projects. Offsetting through these projects has no additional climate impact.  

If you want to offset with a climate impact in the global south, really look at the projects. And ask yourself the question if the money from offsetting is really needed to make this project viable. 

If you want to offset with a climate impact in Europe, then I recommend doing it via the compliance market for example with ForTomorrow. The advantage is that it is a cap-and-trade system. Emissions are capped. Each emission right you buy away reduces emissions in Europe and lowers the cap. 

And then there is offsetting through removing CO2 from the air. Here it is important to check the longevity of the project. Are there laws that protect it, how is the calculation and the monitoring done? 

At the moment there are new standards in development. I hope this question will be easier to answer in the future, because we need carbon offsetting to solve the climate crisis. 

aware_: What are challenges regarding carbon offsetting and what are possible solutions?  

Ruth von Heusinger: The challenge is to get carbon offsetting more transparent, comparable and trustworthy. The existing frameworks were mostly designed for projects in the global south and under the rules of the Kyoto Protocol. It is still unclear in some respects how these frameworks will continue under the Paris Agreement. There was some progress at the last COP meetings, but it needs to be a lot faster. Meanwhile organizations set up their own methodologies for offsetting. That is good if it is done seriously. Because we do not have the time to wait until politicians agree upon international standards. The climate crisis is getting worse every moment and we need to get into action as fast as possible. 

aware_: Why do reducing and offsetting inevitably go hand in hand? 

Ruth von Heusinger: If we go on to emit as much as we do right now in Europe, we will not solve the climate crisis. Even if we offset every ton via projects in the global south. 

You could imagine a scenario where we emit as much as we do now and take it out of the air again with direct air capture. But this has such a high price that we would reduce it anyway. Otherwise, things would be way too costly. 

So, there is no way around it, we need to reduce emissions and especially here in Europe. With offsetting we can accelerate emission reductions. And on top offsetting helps you to make sustainable decisions because you price in the cost of carbon. For example, if you compare the price of a train ticket to a plane ticket. The train ticket might be more expensive. But if you add the cost of carbon, the plane ticket might turn out to be more expensive. This shows that reducing and offsetting go hand in hand. 

We are pleased to welcome Ruth von Heusinger as a valuable expert of the aware_ Academy in the masterclass ‘Voluntary Carbon Markets: Offsetting’. You can register here for free. 

– by Alicia Pineiro 

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