What are carbon avoidance offsets?

At present about 95% of the offsets available to buy are avoidance. They're the vast majority of what is being used to compensate for the large-scale release of greenhouse gases* - in particular carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Yep, you heard that right. Only about 5% are genuinely removing carbon from the atmosphere.

It's important to know the difference and be able to spot avoidance out in the wild - whether a company claim or if you're looking to buy some carbon credits* of some kind.

Like all things in climate the devil is in the detail and where climate change fighting value is the primary consideration, if something is avoidance (rather than reduction or removal), it really does matter.

Here's the super quick summary:

Carbon Avoidance offset credits are created by projects that generate carbon credits* as they do not emit carbon, thereby avoiding emissions. That's the theory.

For example solar power plants, replacing fossil fuel cook stoves with low carbon alternatives, EV car companies and landfill gas capture among others.

Avoidance offsets can theoretically be used to balance emissions, even if no reduction or removal has taken place.

So what are avoidance offsets and credits?

Current Carbon avoidance offsets market

Carbon avoidance offsets* can be bought for a few dollars per tonne of carbon emissions, whereas the true cost of the emissions is estimated to be a whole lot higher.

Because they can be bought so cheaply, from a few US dollars per tonne of emissions avoided, many argue this continues to hide the true cost of releasing billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the air every year, as well as distort how much progress is being made to really decarbonize the world.

A more appropriate "price of carbon emissions" is estimated to be in the $100 to $200 per tonne range.

Carbon avoidance also don't work in the way we need - it doesn't directly reduce or pull out emissions from the atmosphere - and are also grossly undervaluing the emissions. 

Difference between carbon avoidance and carbon removal

It's very, very, very debatable how much impact they'll have in the main Climate Crisis* mission to reduce and remove emissions so they can't keep heating up the planet.

In comparison carbon removal is more expensive, but it works in the way we need to reach net zero by 2050. It takes out the emissions heating the planet and locks them away for a period of time so they can't contribute to the warming.

Quick note: some avoidance projects have great co-benefits to people and the wider environment, like avoiding more deforestation. Because we can't afford to lose any more valuable carbon sinks and biodiverse ecosystems.

There's quite a few other articles about this and other climate-related things on our blog, so take a look there too. In particular, Carbon Avoidance offsets and the Carbon Markets and Carbon Removal 101.

Ready to go deeper?

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If you're particularly interested in how carbon removal is different to carbon avoidance we'd recommend starting with:

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All our online courses are digestible in 10 minutes or less per installment with everything explained, and how it fits into the bigger picture.

They also build on each other, to help you get to grips with everything and form your own thoughts and opinions.

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For explanations of all the terms in italics with asterisks* check out our Climate Buzzword Dictionary 

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