By Ross Douglas, CEO of Autonomy and the Urban Mobility Company

Can humanity change its behaviour before the climate changes it for us? According to David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, half the carbon emissions released since the industrial revolution have happened in the last 30 years.

We emit 40 billion tons per year of CO2. (One ton of CO2 would fill an eight meter cube). Roughly one quarter of our CO2 emissions are absorbed by the oceans and another quarter by plants and soil. The simple equation is that we need to reduce annual CO2 emissions by 20 billion tons per year or face the catastrophic possibility of a 3-degree rise in global temperature.

There are two ways of achieving this. We could slow all economic activity by half: half the flights, half the cars, half of industrial production and probably half the jobs. Or, we could accept the imperative of economic growth and look to technology to reduce emissions. Despite numerous COPs, every year we release more CO2 than the year before; NASA’s Keeling Curve is at 412 ppm (parts per million), up from 388 a decade ago and 180 before the industrial revolution.

NASA’s Keeling Curve. Source:

Carbon Offsets in the Spotlight

With the California wildfires, Venice floods and Australian bushfires, climate change is receiving unprecedented media attention. Business, not wanting to be on the wrong side of history, are trying to neutralise their carbon impact by purchasing voluntary carbon offsets.

Easy Jet recently went public with their offsets, spending 30 million euros to purchase offsets for the 7.5m tonnes of carbon dioxide their planes release each year. At this rate (four euros per ton) the world could collect 3.6 billion euros in carbon offsets, assuming all airlines followed Easy Jet’s example and factoring in that the aviation industry releases 900 million tons of CO2 annually.

In November 2019 EasyJet announced it would offset the carbon emissions from the fuel used for all of its flights.

Car companies are starting to use offsets too. Land Rover offers its SUV buyers the option to pay an extra 150 euros, which they believe covers the carbon cost of manufacturing and the first 45 000 kms. Volkswagen want their compact electric (the I.D.) “to be produced in a balance sheet that is CO2-neutral”. CO2 reduction in the supply chain is part of their strategy, as is “investments in certified climate protection projects elsewhere”.

Real, measurable and additional emission reduction?

A recent article in the Financial Times claims that the carbon offset market is worth only $300 million per year, down from its peak of $790 million in 2008. But this is changing fast as the political tide in Europe turns; agency phones are ringing off the hook with companies looking to voluntarily offset their emissions.

Many carbon offset projects are also sensitive to poverty; understandably so, given the link between wealth and carbon footprint. Projects typically describe themselves as “contributing to improving the health and economic wellbeing of people in developing countries”. A popular project gives simple wood stoves to African villagers, claiming that it halves CO2 emissions. Projects like these have laudable social benefits, but their carbon reduction effects are questionable.

According to Carbon Market Watch, carbon offsets have very little impact on reducing atmospheric carbon. The EU-commissioned study by the Öko-Institut found that 85% of projects covered in their analysis (2013 to 2020) are unlikely to deliver “real, measurable and additional” emission reductions.

How the EU Should Use Carbon Offsets

I believe carbon offsets are here to stay and we should continue to improve the system and encourage the emergence of a green economy. The EU wants to lead the world in creating a low carbon economy; a workable carbon offset programme will be part of that ambition.

green economy EU

The share of greenhouse emissions coming from the transport sector in Europe has greatly increased over the past 30 years. Source: Eurostat

Here are three ways the EU could use offsets to radically reduce CO2 emissions:

1. Fund nuclear energy research

The world needs to rapidly stop using coal, while increasing the power supply at the same time. The only way to do that is a combination of nuclear and renewables. Leading energy thinker, Vaclav Smil, states: “No rational long-range energy plan of any major modern economy should exclude nuclear. The debate shouldn’t be about whether to proceed but about how to proceed.” The world needs a new generation of nuclear plants that are cheaper and quicker to build.

Germany’s switch to renewables is an oft-cited example of solar’s limitations. In 2000, fossil fuels provided 84% of Germany’s energy. Then the country embarked on a historic campaign, building 90 gigawatts of renewable power capacity, enough to match its existing electricity generation. But Germany sees the sun only 10% of the time and so they had to revert to relying on fossil fuels; now they’re Europe’s biggest polluter. Solar can work great, Smil says, but is best where the sun shines a great deal. (From the Journal of Science)

green economy EU

The graph shows that we have traditionally been slow to shift between energy sources (ie. traditional biofuels (wood) to fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gasses). Source: AAAS

2. Trains not planes

If you fly from Paris to London, you will produce 0.125 tons of carbon which you can offset for about 9 euros. But by taking the Eurostar instead, you will reduce your emissions by a staggering 90%. As you will see from the website The Man in Seat 61, you can travel almost anywhere by train in Europe. But travellers prefer low cost airlines. If long distance train tickets were subsidised to the tune of 9 Euros per hour of flying time saved, there would be increasing pressure and incentive to take trains not planes.

3. End car ownership as the default choice:

Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency claims that the undying popularity of SUVs has made them the second biggest contributor to the growth of global CO2 emissions in recent years, just behind the power sector. In 2010, 18 percent of all car sales in the world were SUVs. In 2018 it was over 40 percent! Europe is no different – 1 million new SUVs are projected to be sold in the EU this year. Every motorist that switches from car ownership to using mobility services like public transport and car sharing has a massive carbon saving. Europe can lead the world in the switch to Mobility as a Service (MaaS) but it will have to fund mobility startups till they reach critical mass.

Will Europe Lead?

Europe has an opportunity to lead the world in green tech but it will have to turn its back on traditional oil, coal and gas companies and bravely back innovators that are able to build products and services that reduce emissions by more than half. It will also have to change its attitude to nuclear. There is no longer time for incremental improvements of a few percent here or there.