This excerpt from their Q&A examines today’s solutions for mitigating CO2 emissions, why they matter, and which types can be scaled for the greatest immediate impact. Keep reading for a first-hand account of their informative sit-down. This transcript has been reordered and lightly edited for clarity.

JOEL MAKOWER: Chris, you’re all about carbon offsets and not everybody understands what exactly that means. So, what is a carbon offset?

CHRIS WEBB: Carbon offsets represent greenhouse gas emissions that have been avoided or saved and then used to balance or compensate for greenhouse gas emissions that are generated elsewhere. For example, I am based in London and flew here to Washington, D.C. There are emissions associated with that flight. But I’m able to balance the emissions of my flight by purchasing an offset from a project in Kenya that will help reduce the effect of emissions in Kenya.

JOEL MAKOWER: And because we’re talking about global climate change, offsets can be directed anywhere. The offset that you create over here can offset the emissions that you produce over there. Is that accurate?

CHRIS WEBB: The climate doesn’t see whether an emissions reduction takes place in North America, in Europe, or in Kenya. Of course, it’s always worth thinking about some of the other emissions issues that are generated from our economy that are more local, like local pollutants. But from a climate change perspective, anywhere in the world is equivalent.

JOEL MAKOWER: There are a lot of different kinds of carbon offsets. Can you break it down a little bit more?

CHRIS WEBB: There are two ways to think about carbon offsets. First is the type of projects that you’re investing in. Lower greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved from a range of activities – from installing renewable energy technology, installing energy efficient lighting in buildings, planting trees – there is a huge diversity of activities.

JOEL MAKOWER: Carbon offsets have been around a long time – you mentioned a couple of decades – and there’s been some controversy around them. I think some people think you can write a check and offset your bad behavior, therefore, justifying, “I can drive my SUV. I’m offsetting it.”

There have also been questions about the quality of these offsets, “How much of it is really new and additional, or, how much of it was something that was going to happen anyway?” Is there something different about today’s offsets that are an improvement upon the things we looked at a decade or two ago?

CHRIS WEBB: I think that’s a really fair question and in fact, while this market has been operational for a decade or two, that’s not really a huge amount of time. Back in the early phases of the market, particularly before there was much in the way of regulation, it was a place where voluntary action would take place. And what that meant was that you were out of the purview of policy that was defining what good would look like and what appropriate behavior would look like.

Unfortunately, in those circumstances, there were non-optimal offset projects and offset credits that were produced. I think those “bad apples” very much tainted perceptions today. But between then and now, in the intervening period, we have gathered a huge amount of experience and developed a number of new tools and methodologies to ensure that today, you can generate a high integrity offset unit.


JOEL MAKOWER: You’ve talked about nature-based solutions. Is that trees or is that more than trees?

CHRIS WEBB: It’s certainly more than trees, but trees are a significant portion of it. There’s a huge opportunity to reforest areas that have historically been deforested. We need to reverse and then halt and stop deforestation by 2030. But as you say, there are important opportunities in the agriculture sector, in coastal mangroves, in inland waterways, in grasslands. This is about all nature ecosystems that can play a role here.

JOEL MAKOWER: It also sounds like there’s an opportunity for individuals or communities, or companies even, to invest in their local rivers or coastal areas, or mangrove swamps, thereby helping both their community and the planet.

CHRIS WEBB: And I think that’s one of the things we’re seeing. Nature is everywhere. There are opportunities for companies to think about how nature interacts with their business and their stakeholders and make those links between offsetting in nature and their employees or their customers, or other important stakeholders in their local communities and their value chain.


JOEL MAKOWER: In terms of permeance, trees, first of all, don’t live forever. Second of all, they can be cut down or they can be a subject to forest fires. How do you square that circle? How do we make sure that the trees that were planting to offset carbon for aviation, or anything else, are going to do what we set them out to do?

CHRIS WEBB: Firstly, in the last decade or so, we’ve learned a huge amount from trying different projects and different tools to help deal with that risk. There are a number of things the projects do now to help manage that risk. One of those is at a project level where understanding those risks and building that into the design of a program is much more sophisticated than it was even five or ten years ago.

The second is at a standard level. So, when you have a number of projects that all follow the same standard, those standards now often use what’s called a buffer mechanism. Essentially, it’s a tool that sets aside a portion of the offsets for events that might result in those trees disappearing for one reason or another – fire, pests, other issues. By way of example, one standard gave a report over the summer called, “The Verified Carbon Standard.” It reported on the impact of the Brazilian Amazon fires and how that affected the permanence buffer for their standard. And what they showed was that the system was working. Despite these historic fires that were affecting some of their projects – some of their projects are nature-based projects in the Amazon – at a programmatic level, this buffer actually had an order of magnitude of offsets ready and available to be used to offset that risk of permanence.


JOEL MAKOWER: How big of a role could offsets potentially play in neutralizing the environmental and climate impacts of aviation?

CHRIS WEBB: Offsetting has a large role to play, particularly in the near-term. The CORSIA scheme has designated that the bulk of those emissions reductions that need to be made in the next decade or so be achieved through offsets. But ultimately, over time, that will need to diminish. As we get to 2050, there is essentially a very, very small space for offsetting. While in the near-term, we see offsetting providing the majority of the emissions reductions required, in the long-term, that number will have to get very close to zero.

JOEL MAKOWER: You mentioned that small bid in 2050 – what’s taking up the rest of the offset? Is that sustainable aviation fuels, or something else?

CHRIS WEBB: There are a number of things within the aviation sector that are going to be needed. Sustainable aviation fuels are clearly a critical part of that. And in fact, in the medium-term, that’s going to be one of the biggest other tools needed to reduce emissions in the sector. But there are also technological changes that are going to be required, operational efficiency changes, and changes in infrastructure, particularly in navigation and optimizing routing so that less fuel is burned for each flight.

Check back for the next post in this series about how airlines can develop an actionable strategy to mitigate CO2 emissions through nature-based solutions.

Read: Are aviation’s sustainability goals ambitious enough?

There are many proposed solutions for mitigating CO₂ emissions – but which ones can be scaled for immediate impact? Joel Makower sits down with Chris Webb to discuss the options on the market, while debunking common misconceptions.

Read: How can airlines offset their CO₂ emissions?

There is immense pressure on airlines to take immediate and extensive action to reduce and offset emissions. Joel Makower and Chris Webb discuss the mounting challenges airline executives are facing, and how they can demonstrate their actions and commitments to consumers.

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