Walking towards a smaller footprint with carbon offsetting

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a byproduct of using electricity and gas and are key contributors to climate change. As something that Australia has committed to reducing, individuals and households – as well as industry - have a role to play.

When we talk about carbon being produced, you’ll often hear the term ‘footprint’. Your carbon footprint is the amount of carbon that you, or your household, is responsible for emitting. To leave less of a footprint, you can first work to reduce your emissions, and next ‘offset’ the remaining carbon, usually by purchasing credits through a scheme. Carbon offset credits fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions; commonly, credits represent trees that will be planted to counterbalance the carbon created.

Dr Tim Nelson, Chief Economist at AGL, spends a lot of time thinking about carbon and what we can all do about it. We sat down with Dr Nelson to get a better understanding of what carbon offsetting is, how we can all reduce our carbon emissions, and what this might look like in the future.

First things first, where do our carbon emissions come from?

As an AGL customer, you’re likely to be using electricity, gas or a combination of both. But the footprint for the two is actually quite different. Electricity is responsible for around a third of Australia’s greenhouse emissions, while gas produces a lot fewer emissions.

Why are emissions from electricity so much higher?

It’s because the way power is produced in Australia hasn’t really changed, which means we’re not producing as much ‘clean’ or lower-emission energy as other countries might through technologies like hydroelectric power, wind turbines, or even nuclear power plants. So for Australians, offsetting can be especially important.

As a household, how can we lower our emissions?

There are lots of changes that you can make. People often overlook the impact of lighting, heating and cooling their house, and heating their water. These functions alone account for around half of the yearly energy consumption of an average Australian household.

Don’t just look at the ratings stars when you’re choosing appliances. What was ‘five stars’ ten years ago might be ‘one star’ today. There’s a consumption number on each appliance and it’s more important to compare these.

Something as simple as choosing LED lighting can reduce a lot of power. Standby power can be a real waste, so if you’re not using something, just turn it off at the wall.

More broadly, consumers can think about how they get around; maybe you could ride a bike or walk? If you’ve got the opportunity to put your waste into recycling, that makes a huge difference over time. All those little actions add up.

How does solar energy help?

When you’re building or renovating, you can choose options that could minimise how much electricity you’re ultimately going to consume. Solar is a great way to do this because you can produce your own energy, and these days, a system is much more affordable.

So once we’ve made some changes, where does offsetting come in?

Once you know how many tonnes of carbon you have to offset, you can purchase credits from a provider. Make sure that you’re using a genuine, accredited scheme. This means that the emissions abatement will be delivered – that these trees would not have been planted without your contribution.

For example, AGL customers can opt to have the emissions associated with their household electricity use calculated and offset for $1 a week through our Future Forests program. The program uses carbon offset credits that follow strict guidelines to ensure a measurable and independently verified environmental impact.

Given that managing carbon emissions is a global problem, how’s Australia doing?

During the Paris Agreement of 2015, Australia was tasked with reducing emissions to 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2030. As a country, we’re actually doing a good job when it comes to offsets. We’ve made progress with sectors like farming, where we have improved our land management and the way we use our resources, through programs like the Carbon Farming Initiative.

Traditionally, policy around climate change has been a little uncertain. The measures we have in place now, like Future Forests, have been led by what consumers want, which is something we should be all proud of.

How do you see offsetting changing in the future?

In the next five years, we’re likely to see batteries becoming an option to power your household. But where our emissions can’t be eliminated through substitutions, there will have to be other measures put in place to make sure that our global 2030 targets are met.

Innovation means looking at the interesting opportunities around agriculture and land management, improving our crop yields, and moving into carbon capture and storage. This will be a really interesting technology. It means things like taking carbon out of the air and injecting it into depleted oil and gas wells. Once these advanced technologies exist, there may even be the chance that we can remove existing carbon from our atmosphere and store it safely.