Does Buying a Carbon Offset for Your Laptop Really Help the Planet?

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The next time you purchase a new laptop, you might find an option for additional guilt on the checkout page: Some laptop makers have started offering “carbon offsets” that claim to cancel out all the emissions that go into making your laptop. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. We spoke to five experts to learn about offsets. We also dug deep into two available offset programs to find out whether they’re worth the money, and if not, to learn what you should do instead if you care about the planet but also need a new laptop.

What are carbon offsets?

In theory, carbon offsets allow entities (businesses, governments, individuals) to counterbalance their own carbon emissions by paying someone else to reduce emissions. There are two main types of carbon offsets. One type represents avoided emissions—that is, projects that theoretically prevent carbon from being released in the first place. The other represents carbon removals, or projects that draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. But offsets are “a super murky world without a whole lot of oversight,” according to Jamie Alexander, director of Drawdown Labs, a nonprofit that works with tech companies on climate solutions.

“Not all offsets are created equal,” HP’s chief sustainability officer James McCall explained in an interview. Despite widely agreed-upon criteria for what makes a good offset, “the problem is that most offsets don’t represent real emissions reductions,” said Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, who has studied offsets for 20 years. “So it’s really hard for the buyer of the laptop to know how well the seller really vetted the project.” Many groups are advocating for more transparency surrounding offsets, but in the meantime, it’s both difficult and time-consuming for any individual to suss out whether a particular offset is worth paying for.

Before a company can offset the emissions that go into making a laptop, first it has to measure those emissions. Tracing a product’s carbon footprint is a complex and flawed process, and at best it provides an estimate, usually reported as kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents, or kgCO2e. We looked through reports from all the major laptop manufacturers and found a wide range of estimated carbon footprints for a typical thin-and-light laptop, from 161 kgCO2e up to 334 kgCO2e. It’s better to overestimate an object’s emissions if you’re trying to offset them, so we used the higher end of that range when investigating two currently available offset options offered by Lenovo and Framework.

What about Lenovo’s offset program?

Screenshot of the option to add a carbon offset during the checkout process when purchasing some Lenovo laptops.
At checkout for some Lenovo laptops—as shown for the Yoga 7i (14″) (top) and the Yoga 9i (14″) (bottom)—you have the option to add a carbon offset.

At the beginning of 2022, Lenovo began offering offsets at checkout for some of its thin-and-light and gaming laptops. We found the option available on the Yoga 7i (14″) and Yoga 9i (14″), and we confirmed via email with Claudia Contreras-Gomez, Lenovo’s executive director of global sustainability services, that these $6 and $11 offsets represent half a ton and a ton of carbon emissions, respectively. The amounts represent the company’s best estimate of each model’s carbon footprint, rounded up to the nearest half ton. So far, so good.

But it’s difficult to tell exactly which projects the money goes toward. Lenovo’s website has a PDF flyer that lists several projects, but when we asked Contreras-Gomez for more detail, she provided links to the wind project in Korea, the geothermal-energy project in Indonesia, and a biomass power plant in Chile that wasn’t on the publicly available flyer.

These offsets fall into the “avoided emissions” category because they aim to prevent carbon from being released into the atmosphere. But just because these projects have the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) logo doesn’t mean they’re without issue. The experts we spoke with highlighted two major problems with this type of offset project: the concept of additionality and the dates when the projects started.

A 2016 European Commission study (PDF) found that 85% of all Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects are unlikely to be additional—which means that the vast majority of those projects would have been built anyway, without the help of offset money.

The second issue is how old the offset credits are. As for the three specific offset projects Lenovo is using, two were registered in 2006 and the third was registered in 2007. The Paris Agreement prohibits countries from using offset credits from projects registered before 2013, and CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) doesn’t allow credits (PDF) from any project that generated them prior to 2016.

There are no rules saying that Lenovo can’t use these offset credits. But as CarbonPlan program associate Freya Chay noted in an interview, “Can you really claim that you’re causing a new climate benefit if you’re supporting a piece of large infrastructure for which the decisions were made more than a decade ago?” Ultimately, buying these offsets from Lenovo doesn’t offset the emissions that went into making your laptop, and “you might not be making any difference at all,” concluded Berkeley Carbon Trading Project’s Haya.

What about Framework’s offset program?

Screenshot of Frameworks option to include an offset for Running Tide's kelp-based carbon sequestration.
Framework offers a $100 offset for Running Tide’s kelp-based carbon sequestration.

Framework, the company behind the repairable and upgradable Framework laptop, offers a different type of carbon offset through Running Tide. Unlike projects that focus on avoiding emissions, like those described above, Running Tide is a carbon dioxide removal (CDR) company that aims to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere into floating kelp “microforests” that sink to the bottom of the ocean to sequester the carbon long term. For $100, you can buy a Carbon Capture credit through Running Tide that’s roughly equivalent to 334 kgCO2e. But does buying this credit actually “[m]ake your Framework Laptop carbon neutral” like the company claims?

Scientists agree that carbon removal is “essential” and that kelp sequestration is a promising option, though open science questions remain about this particular method. Independent scientists including Tom Bell, an assistant scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, worked with Ocean Visions to provide feedback on Running Tide’s research and field trials, and the group published a progress report in July 2021 (PDF). “They brought in independent scientific advisors, which is something they didn’t have to do, and they were very receptive to our advice,” Bell told us in an interview.

But Bell also walked us through the need for more research into how much carbon the project captures, how long it stores the carbon, what other environmental impacts it will have on the surface and the deep ocean, and whether it will work at a large enough scale to put a dent in emissions, among other potential snags.1 At the research scale that Running Tide is currently working, Bell explained, these issues are “not a big deal,” but as the project scales up to store large amounts of carbon, they “might be a big deal.”

Running Tide’s kelp-sequestration project doesn’t suffer from the same issues of additionality as the avoided-emissions offsets we covered above. “You don’t have any reason to be growing micro-farms that sink into the deep ocean except for the carbon benefits,” CarbonPlan’s Chay explained, so it’s “clearly additional.”

But one of the biggest open questions concerns accurately measuring how much carbon is being removed from the atmosphere, how much gets stored when the kelp is sunk, and how long that carbon stays stored—the question of permanence. A 2021 paper that Bell co-authored used modeling to determine that carbon sequestered in kelp is stored in the ocean for hundreds of years, the number depending heavily on where and how deep it sinks. This method isn’t as permanent as other sequestration options that can store carbon in rocks underground for millennia, but that technology is even further away.

“What Running Tide is doing is a method and a plan that is worth investigating further,” Bell told us. But as that July 2021 progress report and a more recent interview with The Atlantic indicate, Running Tide is still running field trials. According to that interview, Running Tide estimates that it has “removed less than 1,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere” so far but has plans for “its largest release ever later this year.”

If you spend $100 on this Carbon Capture credit, you’re probably not offsetting the emissions that went into making your laptop. But you are funding research into a promising option, according to our experts. CarbonPlan’s Chay said, “When I think about supporting Running Tide, it’s much more about supporting innovation and exploration that points in the right direction than it is about being able to receive a perfect half ton or a perfect ton that offsets your thing.” But these offsets still aren’t the most effective thing that you—or companies—can do with your money.

What should companies be doing?

In addition to the offsets currently available from Lenovo and Framework, other laptop companies are considering similar programs. HP’s chief sustainability officer James McCall said in an interview that the company has run pilot programs for enterprise customers and that the option “won’t be too far away” for consumers. A Dell spokesperson told us that the company “does not currently use offsets at the company level or offer offsets to consumers at checkout yet.”

Without a lot of diligence—as evidenced by our investigation into Lenovo’s and Framework’s offset programs—it’s impossible to know just how effective such offsets might be. “We shouldn’t take offsets seriously today,” Barbara Haya told us. “The market is broken, and we should raise an eyebrow at any claims of net carbon neutrality if offsets are used.”

And companies shouldn’t be passing the responsibility of offsets to individuals at all. “Putting that responsibility to the consumer is a problem,” said Amir Jina, an environmental economist and assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago. “Because then it’s saying that you, the consumer, are responsible for your carbon footprint, not the production process that we have chosen to engage in.” Nearly every expert we spoke to said that companies should be using offsets only as a last resort. “If we’re just buying offsets and the production process for the laptop stays as carbon intensive and as polluting as it currently is, then there’s no pressure for those things to change,” said Jina.

“Reduction and avoidance of emissions is absolutely the most important thing” for companies to do first, Jamie Alexander of Drawdown Labs told us. And after that (as outlined in this Drawdown graphic), companies “have to be doing other stuff to make up for those emissions.” Alexander continued, “Emissions is not the only thing that companies have at their disposal to do when it comes to sustainability. They can lobby for climate policy. They can shift their investments.”

What can you do as an individual?

So if such offsets don’t actually balance out the emissions from your laptop, what can you do? All our experts stressed reducing your personal emissions wherever possible. “The priority for anyone, corporate or individual or government, should be emission reductions,” CarbonPlan’s Chay told us. “Choosing not to take a single flight is going to have a larger impact than your laptop by a long shot.” And according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator, a laptop’s lifetime emissions is roughly equivalent to just 4.2% of an average American’s home energy use for an entire year.

Buying fewer things is also a big part of emission reductions. “Instead of getting a once-every-four-year update, I might try a once-every-six-year update,” Amir Jina said. He also recommended pushing laptop makers for more repairable and upgradable options. “The best thing to do would be to demand from the people producing laptops that there be a way to not just buy this entirely new piece of machinery all the time.”

Beyond laptops, both Chay and Haya suggested electrifying your home if you can. (Carbon Switch has some helpful guides.) “If you are going to save that $100 and electrify your home, that is way better than purchasing random offsets or tree planting or whatever else,” Chay recommended. Another option, Haya said, is to “take the money that you want to spend on offsets and think about where you can have the most impact with that money.” Haya continued, “It could be supporting a non-profit, doing projects, or doing policy work. It could be supporting companies that are doing demonstration projects of new technologies.”

Chay told us, “Carbon is not the only lens through which to think about environmental good. It’s a really important one, but biodiversity matters, conservation matters, social justice matters.” There is no one solution to climate change—every small action from every single person matters.

This article was edited by Signe Brewster and Arthur Gies.

Footnotes

1. People have also raised questions concerning whether there are enough nutrients to grow that much kelp, as well as the possibility of entanglement issues with creatures and with human transport, plus open regulatory questions surrounding who can do what in international waters. But I digress. This is an article about laptops. How did we end up in this footnote about kelp?
Jump back.



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