The client on the other side of the table is clearly surprised by my remark. “But these are our trees, we’ve paid for them, how come we do not own the carbon rights?” The account manager from the carbon credit provider takes the lead, and tries to approach the issue differently: “Would you be willing to pay extra for the maintenance, replanting, auditing & certification? It will roughly triple the price per tree, and it will lead to the delivery of carbon credits to your company over the course of the next 20 years.”

The client looks at her colleague, and together they try to explain again: they will launch a big event in November, setting out exactly what their company will do to make themselves the green player in their niche. How can they neutralize the carbon footprint that will be associated with it, since it is nearly impossible for them to operate internationally without relying on lots of IT-facilities, road transport and air traffic? Planting trees felt like the way to go, but now they understand that they will not own the carbon, or, if they are willing to pay triple, it will take twenty years before they have reaped all the benefits from it. They’re not so sure anymore. The carbon offset account manager sighs, and offers them existing carbon credits instead: “We have a good batch available from a project that already started in 2011, that way you can offset directly without waiting 20 years.”

The example above is an illustration of the current gap between the needs of clients in a world where climate discussions are heating up quickly, and auditors and resellers who are rooted in decades-old, methodological systems designed to be .. well precisely, thorough & slow on purpose.

Apart from tree-planting, there are many other sectors in which carbon offsetting schemes play a role. And this is a fast developing domain, so certain types of credits that are approved today, will most probably not be allowed in a few years time (there is a debate about hydro and wind generated credits for instance). But if we apply the client’s reasoning – how is this method going to slow down the buildup of CO2 in the air, or ideally even reverse it? – very few projects are left on the table.

The idea that the current climate neutrality schemes might be not sufficient to tackle the problems in the long run, is something that is often written about, but mostly without a clear direction of what could work.

Recent news from The Guardian shows some of the peculiarities of the current discussion, this time spiked by Elton John’s statement that he bought carbon offsets for the use of a private plane by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex:

The world of carbon offsetting flights – where you can pay to have the equivalent of your emissions ‘cancelled out’ by projects that lower or remove emissions, such as reforestation or renewable energy – is not clearcut. While some argue it is better than doing nothing, others say it allows frequent flyers to assuage their guilt and the aviation industry to grow.

“The idea that you can fly ‘carbon neutral’ is very misleading,” says Roger Tyers, a research fellow at the University of Southampton, who studies attitudes to offsetting and recently made a work trip to China by train. “A plane that flies today emits carbon today. It’s very hard to know how fast an offset can remove that amount of carbon from the atmosphere.”

Don’t you feel a bit sorry for Elton John here? Ridiculed for sincerely trying to do the decent thing, if you ask me. But let’s take a closer look at the reasoning: since you cannot define how fast an offset can remove a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere, it is dubious to claim any kind of climate neutrality at all. While of course everyone is free to say what they want, the experts from Greenhouse Gas Protocol do have defined carbon neutrality that way.

What is even more worrying, however, is that no alternative is presented: so what if cash were not an issue and you’d want to fly from A to B, there is still nothing you can do? Are we witnessing the need for a new carbon paradigm, one that is better adapted to the urgency of our climate crisis and offers a real perspective for responsible action?

Some formulas being used in carbon sequestration calculations

Before we try to turn this all into a new concept, I want to stress that we really see the added value of sequestration experts, monitoring, auditing and certification. Furthermore, twenty-year cycles do make a lot of sense, as carbon credits bring in the long-term money for monitoring, replanting and livelihood projects – this part of the equation is often overlooked but essential if you want the inhabitants or neighbors of these forests to benefit from the proceeds as well, once the initial funds for planting have been spent. So the critiques seem to focus not so much on the certification schemes itself, but on the claims one can make by using them, i.e. carbon neutrality, due to the perceived slowness and, sometimes at least, unclear environmental impact of the current system.

In general, if you have a powerful but complex tool (think p2p filesharing or blockchain), large scale adaptation only comes when the technology itself is put under the hood of something that is simpler, easier to use like Popcorn time or a Bitcoin payment app. Carbon credit schemes today are in a comparable position: valuable building blocks, but they might be too complex for most customers / consumers and – for at least a part of the audience – unfit to claim climate neutrality.

How could we use these existing building blocks and work with the current system to create something new overnight that could stand tall in the new era of accelerating needs to do something useful in this domain?

Read more in the last part of this series, ‘How to plant it forward?’