Familes enjoying a sunny afternoon in Exploratory Park, Brent Cross Town

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Exploratory Park is now open for use from early morning till dusk, daily – just a 12-minute walk from Brent Cross tube station.

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Familes enjoying a sunny afternoon in Exploratory Park, Brent Cross Town

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17 December 2020

How carbon offsetting can be a bridge to change

House on a moor in front of a mountain
Carbon offsetting is a crucial stepping stone to sustainable cities.

At Brent Cross Town, we have pledged to tackle the immense challenge of the climate crisis by achieving net zero carbon by 2030. It’s a goal that will take everything we have, from simple solutions like renewable power to technologies that may not even exist yet. Part of the answer will be carbon offsetting, a crucial stepping stone to sustainable cities.

You’ve most likely come across offsetting when booking a flight. Tick a box and for the price of, say, £2 you can pay into a scheme that will balance out the emissions from your flight. It feels too good to be true, cancelling out getting several hundred tonnes of metal 30,000 ft up in the air for less than the cost of an airport cappuccino.

Carbon offsetting schemes certainly deserve a healthy amount of scrutiny. Trying to reverse greenhouse gas emissions is like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube, mixing it up in a huge vat of water and then trying to put it back in. Yet offsetting gets a bad rap when it’s mistaken for this kind of toothpaste-back-in-the-tube miracle cure – that’s a misunderstanding of its role as one of many tools in the net zero carbon toolbox. Instead, it’s a pragmatic measure for today’s world. We can tick off plenty of obvious ways of cutting emissions: renewable energy, low-carbon construction, electric car charging stations. But once all those measures are in place, there’s a stubborn remainder that’s still difficult to shift. A gap remains to be bridged between net zero carbon and the infrastructure and technologies we have now.

Farmland soil
The earth's soils contain four times the CO2 stored in living plants and animals put together, so protecting them is vital.

To take buildings as an example, techniques for constructing offices and homes out of wood have come on leaps and bounds. New cross-laminated timber (CLT) products are lightweight, easier to build with than concrete and they perform better in a fire than steel. But most tall buildings will still need a concrete core to keep them stable, and the technology to produce net zero carbon concrete is a work in progress. This is where carbon offsetting comes in: it’s a measure of last resort when carbon emissions have already been cut using the technologies at our disposal.

Anything that can remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or prevent them from being released in the first place can be a candidate. The poster child of carbon offsetting is tree planting. As the trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and become living carbon stores. Peatland restoration is another powerful method. Peat bogs don’t look as good in photos, but they store twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forests put together. Worse, 10% of annual fossil fuel emissions can be traced back to draining or burning peatlands, so preventing that can make an enormous difference. Other offsetting schemes sponsor renewable energy projects across the world, suck carbon out of the air using direct air capture (DAC) techniques or even clean up potent CFCs from ancient, leaky refrigeration units.

When used in thoughtful and limited ways, studies show that offsetting delivers on lowering carbon emissions.
Girl crouching down next to peat bog
The Flow Country in northern Scotland is a vast area of peatland that the RSPB is working to protect. Photo: Paul Turner, RSPB.

Whatever the approach, robust accreditation is crucial. Carbon offsetting raises difficult questions. What if the forest you plant burns down in a wildfire? How can you be sure that the renewable energy project you’ve sponsored wouldn’t have happened otherwise? Accreditation schemes such as Gold Standard quantify and certify the impact of climate interventions. Certification aims to ensure that the forest you’re protecting, for example, would really have been cut down otherwise. A key part of these accreditation schemes is ‘additionality’: proving that without your intervention the trees, peat bogs, renewable energy scheme or other carbon offsetting measure would not otherwise have happened or been protected. When used in thoughtful and limited ways, studies show that offsetting delivers on lowering carbon emissions and can play a role in buying time.

At Brent Cross Town, we’re now investigating the best offsetting route for this sustainable neighbourhood. First, though, we’re undertaking a lifecycle analysis for every plot that will tell us its carbon footprint and look at how to reduce it. Unavoidable emissions will be offset through certified schemes, and we will sign the World Green Building Council’s net zero carbon buildings commitment, which means publishing our carbon footprint. Carbon offsetting may not outweigh frequent flyer miles, but it’s a bridge to the future.

Photo at top: the UK is one of the world’s top ten countries for peatland area, and over 60% of the country’s peatland is in Scotland.