3 reasons why carbon offsetting our food choices is a bad idea

Schemes that carbon offset our consumer behaviour have their place and their limitations, but carbon offsetting our meals when we dine out is totally missing the point.

There seems to have been a bit of noise on social media recently about offsetting the carbon emissions attributed to our food choices when we dine out.  And whilst this may give customers the feel-good factor that they have had a great night out and done something to help fight climate change, it is somehow managing to completely misunderstand the issues around food sustainability.  It gives people a false sense that their actions are now somehow guilt free, and it absolves the restaurants of taking responsibility for their own sustainability.  Think of it as the eco equivalent of making weekly visits to church to ask for forgiveness, and then going on another crime spree.

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Here are 3 big reasons why carbon offsetting for food is not the solution it claims to be.

1. the environmental impacts of our food systems go way beyond climate change.

The biggest greenhouse gas emissions from our food systems are related to the production (and therefore consumption) of animal products.  So if you are offsetting the carbon footprint of a meal, then really you are offsetting the meat, fish or dairy.  But there are a whole host of other negative environmental impacts caused by the production of these products that a carbon offset (even if it is a tree planting scheme) cannot really cancel out.  Key impacts that will go "un-offset" are:

  • water requirements for livestock production (hint: livestock need a lot of water)
  • land biodiversity loss. Its not just the trees that get cut down to clear land for soy production, grazing land, and palm oil.  Everything else in that habitat goes with it.  And these are some of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet.
  • marine biodiversity.  Planting a tree somewhere to offset carbon is going to help maintain healthy fish stock levels and protect marine biodiversity is it?  Really? Nope, didn't think so.
  • Unsustainable farming practices.  You could maybe just read the above points again, but to spell it out, the demand for animal products is generally agreed to be a key driver of industrial-style monoculture-based farming practices where agricultural land is steadily worked to death.  Just so that we can eat what we want.

So by giving people a get out of jail free card, we keep the treadmill going for eating habits that cause massive damage beyond just climate change.

2. behaviour change would give us so many more co-benefits

 Biodiversity loss is about more than tree-counting

Biodiversity loss is about more than tree-counting

Imagine an alternative world, where instead we ate less of the greenhouse gas intensive foods in order to reduce the emissions attributed to our diets.  Its not just that all the signals from the research world are telling us we need to, we would also relieve the pressure on the other impacts mentioned in point 1.  And we would shift towards more healthy diets at the same time.  All of this becomes harder to achieve when people sell offsetting as a carbon solution to food.  It disincentivises the behaviour changes that we need if we are to make a real difference, and it makes the co-benefits even harder to achieve.

3. it doesn't guarantee cancelling out the bad stuff anyway

Just to be argumentative for a second... history suggests that when we want more land, we tend to throw caution to the wind and cut down trees in order to give us more agricultural land.  Food is one of the key drivers of deforestation, after all.  And so far we have not been very good at preventing this from happening.  Sure, you might be able to argue that global deforestation has slowed, but it is still going on. And at large scale too.  So if you offset a meal by planting a tree somewhere, what guarantee do you have that when the push comes to shove, someone with money/power/influence is not going to cut it down at some stage in the near future because we need more land for food (which is a clear prediction based on population and dietary projectons)?  What do you think is going to happen to that tree?  Its the same madness all over again.

Not to mention that even if that tree stands the test of time, and therefore arguably does its job to offset carbon emissions, you still have all the other environmental impacts to account for.  And planting a tree in one part of the world does not cancel out the loss of biodiversity from cutting down a tree in another part of the world.  Global ecosystems don't really work like that.

 "Its almost the same size as that tree someone will plant on my behalf."

"Its almost the same size as that tree someone will plant on my behalf."

We really cannot afford schemes that give people the impression that they can just carry on regardless and eat what they want.  And these schemes risk doing just that.  It is surely not their intention, but it is outcome not intention that counts, and the message is pretty clear.  "Carbon free dining", "carbon neutral restaurants", "carbon positive" (please everybody, stop saying that); all these phrases are loaded with messaging that there is nothing to worry about.  We cannot make an assumption people will also make behaviour changes as well as paying a bit extra for an offset; that just doesn't make any behavioural sense. 


In defense of carbon offsetting, and as pointed out by a friend who works in research programs for food sustainability, we may well still need to throw money at offsetting our emissions in order to meet climate change targets.  But, as he pointed out, this can only work when it is in addition to progress in sustainable farming practices, reductions in consumption of animal products, and reductions in food waste.  If it replaces the reductions in consumption then it just can't work; we will be cutting down trees for more farmland faster than the offsetters will be planting them!

A disclaimer: 

At IntoFood we specifically measure the carbon footprint (among other things) of recipes, menus, sales and procurement for clients in the hospitality industry.  But we do it to help them see the opportunity for change in their food service, not so they can sign up for a ticket to "cook what you want" catering.  And we use carbon footprint as the vehicle for change not the definition of change, because whilst there are indeed some trade-offs between greenhouse gas metrics and other food-related issues (for example, animal welfare), there are also so many co-benefits, as mentioned here, of eating lower on the carbon scale.  Eat climate-smart, don't just try to pay your way out of trouble.