Carbon neutrality: reducing vs. offsetting CO2 emissions

Carbon neutrality: reducing vs. offsetting CO2 emissions


In the face of accelerating climate change, it is becoming urgent to initiate the decarbonization of our society. As anthropogenic activity (related to human activity) produces more greenhouse gases than ever, it is time for action. This reality leads countries, institutions, and companies to assess, then reduce and compensate their greenhouse gas emissions to reach the ambitious goal of carbon neutrality. However, it is important to adopt the right strategy to be fully virtuous and avoid any greenwashing.


Objective: carbon neutrality

The principle of carbon neutrality is based on a fair balance between carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions resulting from human activity and the sequestration of this gas by carbon sinks on a global scale.

Following the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in 2015, over 100 countries adopted the Paris Agreement. Through this action, these nations committed to limiting global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century.

Hundreds of cities, regions, and businesses worldwide have followed suit. Some organizations aim for carbon neutrality by 2030 or are committed to becoming “carbon negative” by eliminating more carbon than they emit. However, this goal still seems far away. While natural sinks (soils, forests, oceans…) eliminate up to 11 gigatons of CO2 per year, global emissions reached 38 gigatons of CO2 in 2019 (1).

co2emission carbon footprint


Step #1: measure your carbon footprint

To undertake its environmental transition, any organization or territory must start by measuring its carbon footprint. This consists in evaluating the number of greenhouse gases emitted (or captured) in the atmosphere by its activities over one year. Entities can rely on ISO 14064, ISO 14069, or the GHG Protocol initiative to start this process.

This maneuver makes it possible to obtain a clear mapping of the main greenhouse gas emission items and thus set up an action plan. For entities committed to achieving carbon neutrality, the objective is twofold: reducing their emissions while absorbing as much carbon as they emit, hence achieving zero net emissions.


Step #2: reduce vs. offset carbon emissions

Of course, the first strategy to adopt is acting at the source. Organizations must get into gear to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions on scopes 1, 2, and 3. In other words, they need to reduce their direct and indirect emissions all along the value chain.

After that, they will focus on offsetting all the incompressible emissions that they do not know how to, or cannot yet, reduce satisfactorily. Through carbon offsetting programs, they will finance greenhouse gas emission reduction or sequestration projects, mainly in developing countries, in order to receive carbon credits. These projects are generally dedicated to reforestation, sustainable forest management, sustainable agricultural practices, energy efficiency, or renewable energy development.

These exchanges and transactions of CO2 credits are carried out on two main carbon offset systems:
– The Kyoto Protocol initiated a regulatory carbon offset market for signatory countries.
– A voluntary market is open to those who wish to offset their emissions without being forced to do so (individuals, companies, local authorities, etc.).

To be certified, these carbon offset projects must meet several criteria. Indeed, these projects must be additional (they would not have been able to be implemented without this financial support), permanent, measurable, and transparent.

carbon neutrality co2 emissions


Offsetting CO2 emissions, a right to pollute?

However, the carbon offset market is being questioned, both in its principle and application. Augustin Fragnière, teacher-researcher and author of the book “La compensation carbone : illusion ou solution ?” (Carbon offsetting: illusion or solution?). He denounces this system, often described as a “right to pollute.” For him, “delegating the resolution of problems has become a conditioned reflex for developed countries, as well as a form of denial of reality.” Indeed, this carbon compensation mechanism should not encourage actors to postpone or delegate their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Many associations also point out the difficulty of guaranteeing the additionality of projects or the promised emissions reductions. The UN Environment highlights the limits of this process “If we are serious about averting catastrophic planetary changes, we need to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030. Trees planted today can’t grow fast enough to achieve this goal. And carbon offset projects will never be able to curb the emissions growth while reducing overall emissions if coal power stations continue to be built and petrol cars continue to be bought, and our growing global population continues to consume as it does today. (2)

Therefore, a true carbon neutrality strategy must prioritize emission reductions as the only credible solution. Offsetting remains a tool of last resort to initiate its environmental transition.



(1) European Parliament, What is carbon neutrality and how can it be achieved by 2050?, 2021
(2) UN Environment Program, Carbon offsets are not our get-out-of-jail free card, 2019