15.07.22 “Offsetting is the final step” Interview with Herbert Haberl, sustainability expert • Reading time: 5 min.

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Offsetting with climate certificates can help individuals and also organizations to reduce their carbon footprint. But some certificates are better than others, according to Herbert Haberl. He advises companies to base their processes on sustainability criteria and suggests that they focus not only on the environmental effects of climate projects, but also on their social and economic impacts. 

Herbert Haberl, sustainability expert

Herbert Haberl, buying climate certificates is one way of reducing your personal CO2 footprint, including in the case of travel. What is the best approach to take?

It is important for me to say one thing up front. Offsetting by buying certificates is the final step. Firstly, we must avoid emissions in our daily lives and also when we travel, for example by walking or cycling on vacation. The second step is reduction. This includes not eating meat every day or staying in a small guest house rather than a large resort hotel which generates far more emissions. We should offset using certificates only those things that we cannot avoid or reduce. 

Offsetting is the cherry on the climate action cake, so to speak. 

That’s clear. What lies behind the purchase of certificates?

Essentially there are projects all over the world that are helping to combat climate change, which are entirely or partly funded by the purchase of CO2 certificates. The project developers give details of the amount of emissions that will be saved by their project and the amount of money that a certain quantity of saved emissions costs. These costs are then divided up and sold in the form of certificates. Once you have bought a certificate, it cannot be sold again, because the sale is recorded in a global register run by the private sector. This is described as deleting a certificate. The entire process, from estimating the contribution toward combating climate change through to deleting the certificate, is monitored by independent inspection bodies. 

Can you give us an example?

Imagine a project that enables small farmers in India to sell their previously worthless crop waste to a biogas plant. Biogas has a lower impact on the climate than natural gas and other fossil fuels, which means that using it reduces global emissions by a definable amount. Let’s say that it costs 50,000 euros to set up the project. You buy a certificate – for instance for 35 euros per metric ton of emissions saved – and this helps to fund the project and offset part of your carbon footprint. 

Where can people offset the impact of their travel?

Platforms such as atmosfair.de, climatefair.de, klima-kollekte.de, primaklima.org, and myclimate.org allow you to calculate the emissions that your flight will produce and to buy climate certificates to offset those emissions. Either the platform will decide which project you invest in or you can make the choice yourself. I recommend providers that give detailed information on their websites, for example about the alternatives to flying or about the three-step process of avoiding, reducing, and offsetting that I mentioned previously. This encourages people to take the subject really seriously. 

What should people be aware of when they are buying certificates?

It is important that the providers – both the platforms and the project operators presented on the platforms – supply transparent, easily understandable information about the purchase and, of course, about the projects themselves. I would also take a look at the standard that the platform is based on – in other words, the criteria used to select the projects. I and many others recommend the Gold Standard, which was developed by the Gold Standard Foundation, a Swiss certification NGO. On its website you can also find out about your everyday carbon footprint and invest in specific projects. In addition, the website has a lot of resources on the subject of emission avoidance and reduction. 

Are all the projects and related certificates useful?

Offsetting is better than doing nothing. But I recommend investigating the overall impact of a project. The ideal choice is a project that involves other aspects of sustainability, based on the United Nations sustainable development goals. Alongside the purely environmental factors, there are also economic and social considerations. Take the example of the small farmers who turn their crop waste into biogas. This opens up an additional source of income for them which improves their financial situation. I regularly invest in projects that replace wood-fired cooking stoves with more climate-friendly technology. That not only helps the climate but also improves the health of the people doing the cooking, because they no longer have to breathe in wood smoke. 

The final question: When it comes to climate projects, many people think of reforestation schemes… 

These are an investment for the future, because trees take a long time to grow and to take up CO2. I recommend investing in projects that already exist and that can immediately reduce the global emissions from consumption when a certificate is purchased. For people who want to support nature projects, peat bogs are the most effective carbon sinks. Reinstating them has a rapid effect. There are projects in this field in Germany and throughout the world that are funded by the sale of certificates.


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