'Offsetting' is not a long-term sustainable solution to the problem of too much fossil fuel use.
Calculations show that there is not enough land on the planet to plant enough trees, and not enough scope for alternatives.

What is 'offsetting' ?

The theory is that instead of reducing the amount of CO2 that people generate, they pay for someone else to reduce their CO2 emissions or absorb CO2 in some way.

Methods of 'offsetting'

Principally tree planting, energy conservation, and funding research (e.g. into energy conservation and renewable energy).

Planting trees - pros and cons

The theory is that by personally planting trees or contributing to a commercial organisation or charity that will do this, trees will be planted that will (as they grow) take up an amount of CO2 equal to what someone generates.

One problem is that the trees will take decades to absorb the CO2 but it is being generated now - and CO2 emissions need to be reduced now. Another problem is that the trees will give back the CO2 into the atmosphere eventually when they die and decompose, and so as well as planting the trees, it is necessary to ensure that the land where they are planted remains as woodland indefinitely - impossible to guarantee, especially as forests are now dying from drought or being destroyed in forest fires. Finally, and crucially, the amount of land needed makes this unsustainable in the long term - see document 76.

Reducing CO2 emissions elsewhere - pros and cons

The principle is that a commercial organisation or charity promises to set up a project where your money will reduce someone's CO2 emissions by replacing fossil fuel by a renewable source or some energy saving measure. The problems with this are that it is hard to be confident that this will actually happen.

Funding research - pros and cons

The theory is that the money contributed pays for research that will result in future reductions in CO2 emissions. The problem is finding a project that will achieve this - thousands of companies around the world are already spending large sums on developing technologies - the profit motive will almost certainly achieve this better than donations.

What others say

In favourAgainst
Environmental charities
Friends of the Earth [1]
Greenpeace [2]
WWF [3]
Commercial organisations
BP (www.targetneutral.com)
British Airways
Land Rover


There cannot be any confidence that any of the methods of 'offsetting' can be relied on, and so 'offsetting' should not be part of the plans to tackle climate change. The world is producing too much CO2, and the need is to tackle this head-on by taking responsibility and reducing emissions. 'Offsetting' schemes probably do more harm than good by giving the impression that people can carry on just as they are, with payment of just a few pounds/euros/dollars (and not asking awkward questions about whether the schemes actually do any good).

Further reading


[1]Friends of the Earth: www.foe.co.uk/resource/faqs/questions/climate_change_why_offsetting.html (viewed 18.9.07)
[2]Greenpeace: www.greenpeace.org.uk/media/press-releases/greenpeace-statement-on-carbon-off-setting (viewed 18.9.07)
[3]WWF: Gives support for 'offsetting' "only as the final part of a three-pronged approach known as 'avoid, reduce, then offset'. Only when all options to avoid or reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been exhausted (these include e.g. buying green electricity, using public transport, or using video-conferencing instead of flying to meetings) should they proceed to offsetting" http://www.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/energy_solutions/smarter_energy_news/?126681/Go-with-Gold-for-quality-carbon-offsetting (viewed 9 May 2009).

First published: 2007
Last updated: 16 Sep 2023