Sep 8, 2020/
4 min. read
Offsets, Onsets, and Insets: More is More
As the great cellist Yo Yo Ma honored his mentor, the great cellist Mistlav Rostopovich, at the 15th Kennedy Center Honors, he misquoted the Maestro’s famous dictum “Less is more”. Mr. Ma said “more is more”, then brought over 40 cellists on stage.
The original phrase, “less is more” is about holding back. Playing in a minimal way can deliver a punch, making music of arresting beauty and strength. Works that way for carbon pollution too.
Most discussion has been about mitigation. However, as I wrote in earlier posts, we need more action and options.
I spend my days in Carbonville, an imaginary town dominated by transactions of energy, carbon, and atmospheric loading of greenhouse gases (mostly CO2). Accounting in Carbonville is done in tons of CO2 – the unit of merit in a carbon economy.
People mostly “spend” in Carbonville – we emit tons, and overshoot our carbon budget. However, for many years, large-scale efforts have attempted to create a carbon “savings” or “earnings” accounting. This is typically done with what are called offsets. For a longer discussion of offsets, look here.
Offsets deliver a lot of good to the world. Clean energy projects, avoided deforestation, and efficient light-blub programs are a few examples. Naturally, offsets have their warts and challenges as well. Some folks compare them to the ancient Catholic Church practice of buying indulgences.
Fair or not, there are grounds to question the carbon savings of offsets. Despite the good they provide, carbon reduction is commonly not one of them.
One key challenge is additionality: it’s hard to know that a specific investment would not happen anyway, and therefore doesn’t really contribute to reduction.
The second is philosophical: many offsets begin with some counter-factual exercise which is then assessed and accounted. For example, building off-grid renewables doesn’t actually reduce emissions, but it could prevent a future coal plant from being built. How to assess the timing and magnitude of these hypothetical reductions is fraught.
Third, there’s a question of permanence. If a farm is paid an offset to store carbon in their soil (say, through no-till farming) but then a future buyer plows the soil, is the carbon reduction real? Does the person who plows have to pay back the offset? At what price?
For a longer discussion of the challenges with offsets, look here or here or here.
To repeat, a LOT of good comes from offsets. However, some customers want more in terms of performance and sureness. Others worry about the rate, the volumes, and the permanence. Others worry about potential financial scandals.
In short, we should keep supporting and purchasing offsets and work to make them better, but we need more options that provide more speed, more volume, and more permanence.
Thankfully, new options are ready today. As I mentioned in my last blog, we can pull CO2 from the air and store it forever (like in Reykjavik). We can add carbon to soil by adding biochar. These undertakings have a different profile from offsets – they are born restoring carbon to the earth and holding it for a long time. They are easy to meter and to count – no counter-factual exercise required. They are also commonly more expensive than traditional offsets, so traditional offset markets alone won’t bring them forward.
We need new terms to describe these the new things. I call them onsets and insets.
Onsets add long-lived carbon to the earth’s surface. Some is what Bill McDonough calls “living carbon” – trees, mangroves, kelp forests. Some onset carbon is durable carbon stored in soils, either through practice (like no-till farming) or by adding it by hand (like with biochar). While some offsets, like rebuilding forests, might fall under conventional offsets, most onsets lie outside of what offsets traditionally undertake.
Onsets may cost more than traditional offsets, but they also have more certainty that carbon is harvested and in many cases more permanence. This makes onsets a different product than offsets in function, ease of validation, permanence, and cost.
Insets are different still – they store carbon indefinitely deep in the earth. The Hellishiede CarbFix/Climeworks project in Iceland is an example. So is the ADM carbon storage project in Decatur, Illinois. It harvests carbon from the air using corn, converts some of that carbon to ethanol, and stores roughly half of that carbon two miles under Heartland farms. So far, they’ve inset over 1 million tons of CO2 this way. Turning atmospheric CO2 into durable carbon products like cement, plastics, carbon fiber, and carbon black are also insets.
Projects that deliver insets are even easier to validate and meter than most onsets or offsets. The carbon removal is iron-clad – no ambiguity. This improves insets’ market appeal. Conversely, they typically cost more than offsets or onsets, which limits their market appeal.
All three approaches (offsets, onsets, and insets) create benefits and deserve much more investment. Some offsets include biodiversity, support for indigenous tribes, and improved water quality. Many of these benefits are the same of onsets, as are increased farm yield and improved soil health. Inset benefits include high technology and innovation, new and improved products, and reduced waste.
A few useful actions would start doing more in Carbonville to stimulate better carbon harvesting:
– Acknowledge the problem. Formally, national and state governments could be more vocal about this need, and seek ways to manifest action. We need more options, more carbon removal, more drawdown, more investment, more innovation, and more ambition. Admitting the problem is the first step in recovery.
– Start investing. The offset markets suffers from low-prices and insufficient investment. These can be improved by larger commitments, but would also likely require more honest recognition of their operation challenges and some restructuring (e.g., reducing allowances).
– Demand onsets and insets. These options are very new, and their potential markets are unexplored. This could be fixed by aggressive procurement of onsets and insets, as well as commitment of a small fraction (2-5%) of the offset market to these promising new, higher cost pathways.
That’s how I see the opportunities within these nascent and expanding enterprises, and how they can help create a new carbon economy.
More or less.