Five misleading assumptions about addressing carbon emissions

Five misleading assumptions about addressing carbon emissions
November 2023
Szilvia Szabó

Szilvia Szabó Author

Journalist, Editor
Journalist, Editor
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In the lead-up to COP28, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will take place from 30 November until 12 December 2023, there are a lot of talks regarding how to reach net zero emission targets.

Although carbon management has become mainstream in the business sector, there is still much confusion and urban legends about what to do with our carbon footprint. This overview explores the most common assumptions about the carbon case.

1 / We can offset our way out of climate action.

Even though it might seem like a simple math equation that we use offsetting to cancel out emissions, it is more complex than that.

Carbon offsetting is far from being a flawless process, with many controversial issues and a lack of reliable scientific evidence on its actual short and long-term impact.

A recent investigation by the Guardian and researchers from Corporate Accountability analysed the top 50 emission offset projects - those that have sold the most carbon credits in the global market.

Using a thorough analytical method, they claim that “78% of them were categorised as likely junk or worthless due to one or more fundamental failing that undermines its promised emission cuts”.

The rest of the projects looked problematic or could not be determined definitively due to a lack of credible available data.

The shocking revelation is that the projects marked as “junk or overvalued” made up almost a third of the global voluntary carbon market, raising the question of whether carbon offsetting benefits are exaggerated across the whole portfolio.

According to AlliedOffsets, the most comprehensive emissions trading database, these popular global offsetting programs span twenty countries, dominantly in developing regions, including forestry schemes, hydroelectric dams, solar and wind farms, waste disposal and greener household appliances schemes.

It is compelling to look at carbon credits as the ultimate solution.

Still, the best way forward is to reduce emissions as much as possible and look for offsetting through critical analytical lenses that ensure the best outcome.

2 / Becoming carbon neutral is the end goal.

While reaching the point where you are balancing off what your company emits is a great starting point, it is not enough to improve our situation in terms of reverse engineering climate change.

Image: Getty Images

Settling to cancel out the total amount of carbon emissions you produce will not be sufficient in the long term to future-proof your business. It is great to start with net-zero carbon goals focusing on specific activities, which means that no carbon was emitted, therefore, there is no need to capture or offset.

Aiming for maximum reduction of environmental footprint and offsetting more than the overall emission of your business, or in other words, becoming carbon negative, is where things will get better.

3 / AI solutions will solve all climate challenges.

Leveraging AI in carbon management has great potential. For instance, data analytics and predictive algorithms can help companies better understand and manage their energy usage, transportation, and manufacturing processes to model and measure their Scope 1 and 2 emissions accurately.

According to a study by the European Union, the use of AI and machine learning in energy management systems could result in energy savings of up to 15% in commercial buildings.

AI-driven applications can also contribute to managing Scope 3 emissions through supply chains by optimising connections and material usage between different stakeholders, and experimental projects are looking at implementing blockchain-based carbon tracking systems.

Putting more effort into using predictive analytics is also an area of interest since it can model future carbon emissions and identify potential areas of improvement.

This means that based on previous data and patterns, AI can present different carbon footprint scenarios, allowing decision-makers to choose the one that best fits their strategic goals.

On the other hand, experts and researchers warn that using AI has its own environmental footprint that cannot be overlooked.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found the training process for a single AI model can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, which is about the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 62.6 gasoline-powered passenger vehicles driven for a year.

Empowering the process of training AI and using it on a large scale requires a lot of energy, and global companies like Microsoft refuse to share relevant information regarding resources used in powering these solutions.

Swedish researcher Anders Andrae has forecasted that data centres could account for 10% of total electricity use by 2025.; Image: Unsplash

Using AI in addressing climate change could be a valuable tool that organisations utilise with a footnote that it must also be vetted with the same principles as any other activities with environmental impact.

4 / Planting more trees is the ultimate solution for offsetting carbon emissions.

Trees are natural carbon absorbers commonly known as the easiest, most environmentally friendly way to offset carbon emissions.

Different tree species have various absorption capacities, but in general, it is considered that 6 mature trees can store about 1 ton of CO2.; Image: Unsplash

According to calculations shared by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it would take 640 trees per person to account for all American emissions, which adds up to more than 200 billion trees.

To plant those trees, you need to find available and appropriate lands to start with, which would be a challenge in itself, not to mention keeping those trees healthy and alive.

Experts agree that while planting new trees is beneficial and needed in fighting climate change, protecting and nurturing existing forests with complex ecosystems is best.

Also, there is the issue that trees are more like time capsules for keeping carbon from entering the atmosphere since when they decay – whether in a wildfire or being chopped down and burnt – they release most of the carbon they stored.

Besides, newly planted trees must reach maturity before becoming formidable carbon sinks, need proper care and protection over their lifetime, and should be accounted for carbon release when decomposing.

Embracing professional forest management is an excellent tool in the box, but looking at tree planting is far from being a quick fix for offsetting.

5 / Digital tech companies should not worry about carbon emissions.

The hidden environmental impact of digital tech companies is not in the spotlight that much, and it is easy to assume that since a company does not produce physical products, it has a small role in lowering carbon emissions.

However, the reality is that they should be on the radar for ramping up climate actions through their operation and the tools or resources they use.

Data centres used by small and large tech companies are essentially massive warehouses packed with servers consuming electricity primarily generated by fossil fuels, like power plants that burn coal.

It is estimated that 30% of data centres run on a 24/7 basis, often resulting in energy wastage of around 5-10% of their total capacity.

All digital services, from sending emails to running video conferences, use energy that accounts for emissions, and putting together all the small amounts emitted through these activities could sum up to a considerable volume.

Based on Our World in Data report, the information technology used to manage and maintain digital services can be between 2 and 3 per cent. ; Image: Unsplash

There are various ways to manage digital companies' carbon footprint.

An interesting approach from Facebook was moving some parts of its IT infrastructure to northern Sweden, where the naturally cold environment helps reduce the energy needed to keep servers from overheating.

Switching to cloud-based solutions that operate more energy-efficiently is a popular choice for environmentally conscious companies to reduce their footprint.

Besides energy usage, there is also the question of using computers and other electronic devices, considering their overall environmental footprint from production to waste.

Headline image: Getty Images


This article is published in collaboration with the Profit with Purpose Magazine.

To read more insights regarding carbon management, you can download the latest digital edition of the magazine that further explores topics such as carbon offsetting, regulations and more.


Szilvia Szabó

Szilvia Szabó Author

Journalist, Editor
Journalist, Editor