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Is tree planting the same as carbon offsetting?

May 26, 2023

One of the most misunderstood assumptions people make is that tree planting must be the same as carbon offsetting. We explain why it isn't so.

Whilst it's true that planting trees is generally a good idea for all sorts of reasons, not least for improving wildlife habitat, just the act of planting trees alone is not the same as carbon offsetting.

How can it be that planting trees alone is not carbon offsetting?

To answer the question, we first need to understand a little more about what carbon offsetting means.

There are generally two different ways to legitimately claim you are carbon offsetting, both based on the creation of certified and verifiable projects that require investment to create a carbon benefit.

Projects can only be considered as carbon offsetting if the proof exists that without the investment in a new project, the carbon benefit would otherwise not be possible.

The two types of carbon offsetting

1. Carbon abatement

The first type of carbon offsetting is abatement, which is achieved by carbon avoidance. In other words, you could invest in certified projects that reduce or avoid future carbon emissions, for example, building a hydroelectric dam in India to replace the burning of fossil fuel to provide power.

Completed carbon abatement projects reduce or avoid future emissions of carbon into the atmosphere.

2. Carbon capture

The other type of carbon offsetting is achieved by carbon capture or sequestration. This means carbon in the atmosphere is reduced through the removal of carbon from the atmosphere into another form. This can be achieved by technology, or through natural sources such as afforestation – planting trees - where the carbon removed over time eventually forms wood and locks in the carbon from the atmosphere.

Once completed, carbon capture projects remove carbon from the existing atmosphere.

To avoid and mitigate the climate change crisis we need to do both – we need to reduce future carbon emissions, and also capture the already high levels of carbon in our atmosphere that is leading to the global warming we already see today.

It's not enough just to avoid or reduce carbon emissions in the future and disregard today’s level of CO2e and global warming we have now.

How does this relate to motorsport?

Almost all human activity creates carbon emissions, and some occur naturally. Motorsport obviously adds to these emissions, and it's difficult to justify in the face of the argument that we could reduce carbon emissions by simply not holding any motorsport events.

We can of course offset 100% of the emissions generated by motorsport activity, but again we face the argument that it's quicker to improve climate change by just not doing the activity in the first place.

If we can legitimately prove that we will remove or avoid more carbon emissions than we generate, then genuine offsetting can show that the activity of motorsport is helping to address the climate change crisis.

Certified carbon capture projects based in the UK that focus on afforestation or re-wilding can also provide additional benefits for nearby communities. For rallying particularly, these are often the same local communities that support their motorsport event.

What's the catch?

The painful and expensive words are "legitimately prove".

The use of the term carbon offsetting, and the quantification of the measured levels of carbon offsetting that will be achieved, is only legally permissible and promotable in the UK when certain legal standards are met in calculation and offsetting methods. These methods in the UK must use properly audited and certified projects, which incur additional requirements and costs.

In other words, we can't just plant some trees.

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