The troubled world of off-setting and sequestration

By Jo Wall | 18 March 2020

In November 2019, the Financial Times said: ‘Not since the Catholic Church sold indulgences to reduce the time in purgatory has there been such a flourishing market in the forgiveness of sin’. The flourishing markets in this context are those that deal with carbon ‘sequestration’ and ‘off-setting’.

Carbon sequestration is the process of locking away carbon permanently, and carbon off-setting is paying someone to do this on our behalf. While significant investment and research is ongoing to find technological solutions for capturing carbon, at the moment these are not effective and we are reliant on natural carbon sinks such as forests, coral and peatland.

It is likely carbon off-setting will have to form part of solving the net-zero problem; but it should be considered as a last resort. It can pose serious reputational risks, owing to the under-regulated and often opaque markets for carbon sequestration.

Oversight of off-setting and appropriate assurance mechanisms should be utilised to ensure the schemes deliver sequestration, rather than planting and ignoring a few saplings. Schemes must also be genuinely additional, not part of existing plans or something that would have happened anyway. Off-set standards vary, and the World Wildlife Fund has published a report that helps with their comparison. Each of these standards differs in key ways, and will therefore be more appropriate to some areas than others.

As well as relying on offsets there is directly-managed carbon capture which will give greater local control, and may bring other benefits to your community. This could include supporting peatland restoration, or a local tree planting programme. In turn, these may have additional advantages in terms of climate change adaptation, for example by providing cooling in areas likely to be affected by urban heating, and by increasing the time for rain to enter water courses in areas likely to be at increased risk of flooding.

Local Partnerships’ work across the areas of carbon sequestration, place-making and carbon accounting mean we have the skills to help assess the best options to adopt in order to select robust, practical and defensible plans for carbon off-setting.


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