Decoding the Scientific Jargon: Offsetting

Decoding the Scientific Jargon: Offsetting

“Well, what do you think about carbon offsetting?”

The question is directed at you, and you feel your stomach tighten. You’ve heard the term a lot and you thought you vaguely understood it, but in the heat of the moment, you’re drawing a blank.

There is nothing more off-putting than people using jargon when you don’t know what it means. It gets even worse if it is a term you think you should understand, but the time has long gone when it would have been OK to ask.

Luckily, we’ve got you covered. 

Offsetting: To outweigh your negative impact with a positive impact (verb).

In simple terms, offsetting is when you make a positive impact on the world around you to make up for a negative one that you can’t avoid. Imagine you want to build a new deck, but there is one tree right where you need to build. It’s unavoidable. You could offset the environmental damage by planting another similar tree in a different part of your garden. One tree lost, one tree gained. You have successfully offset your footprint.

Now let’s imagine that on a bigger scale. A company might have to release carbon into the atmosphere in order to function. If you want to buy a new jacket, a company will need to use electricity to produce it, and some kind of engine to transport it to you. To compensate for the carbon they have emitted, they might plant hectares of trees or seagrass to offset that impact.

Sequester: to capture or store something (verb).

Why trees or seagrass? Well, it turns out that they do something very unique: They pull carbon out of our atmosphere and sequester it in their root systems, safe underground where it won’t contribute to the warming of our atmosphere. A beautiful gum tree is breathtaking, but in a more literal sense, it is breath-giving.

Ideally, when a company or government participates in carbon offsetting, it will be a meaningful offset. Releasing millions of tonnes of carbon and planting two trees doesn’t quite add up. This is what is commonly called ‘greenwashing’

Greenwashing: To loudly proclaim that you are caring for the environment, whilst doing very little (verb).

Here is the least effective form of carbon offsetting: committing to protect a patch of rainforest from being cleared. Sure, it is better than nothing. However, it might be considered the bare minimum. It would be like staring at your burning kitchen, and promising to not light any new fires. Helpful, but not as good as it sounds.

Let’s apply the idea of offsetting to seafood. Whenever a fish is taken from the ocean, this has a small negative impact on the overall fish population and the habitat it lives in. Now consider the impact of removing literally billions of fish from the ocean every year. Whole populations are wiped out and entire ecosystems change. To offset this, you would need to do something which has a positive impact on the ocean. And this is the modus operandi of OneFishTwoFish.

We are offsetting the impact of seafood in a few ways. 

Firstly, we are replenishing the populations of fish, aiming to spawn two fish for every one fish that is pulled from the ocean. The secret weapon here is a fish hatchery. Most baby fish in the wild die within the first hundred days of being born. They get eaten or never make it to their ‘nursery’ habitat. In a hatchery, they can be protected through this vulnerable phase, and released into the wild in habitats where they have the best chances of survival. The science is pretty complex, but the maths is pretty simple: If we are replenishing two fish for every one fish that is taken, there is no net loss. That is offsetting at its finest!

Secondly, we replenish the ocean with fish by restoring habitats. In some places like Southeastern Australia, we have lost 50% of the infrastructure and habitats that fish call home since pre colonial times. That means the fish have nowhere to live, spawn and thrive. But for every hectare of seagrass that we can restore, somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 fish will return. The seagrass also sequesters carbon, gives fish a place to live, and it also helps other marine life to flourish when fish populations are thriving. It’s a win win.

Now, when someone asks you on the merits of carbon offsetting and whether the carbon they are sequestering is sufficient or whether it is just greenwashing, hopefully you feel confident to give an answer.

After all, it would be a shame to shy away from a good conversation about sustainability simply because you’re unsure of the terminology. Good luck!
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