Offsetting is a dangerous fantasy

[Published in the Irish Times on Thursday July 28th 2022]

Imagine paying someone to queue for you. Believe it or not, this is not a hypothetical scenario. In some US states voting centre hours are so limited people have to queue for long periods before they can cast their ballots. So, some enterprising folk offer to queue in their stead, for a fee. This is a rather bizarre transaction (and also problematic, given the implied barriers to voter participation) but presumably both parties to the deal are satisfied and, from a logical perspective, overall utility is maximised.

But what if you paid someone to actually vote for you instead. That’s different, because the voting right, and duty, is inalienable – your vote belongs to you and only you can cast it. In criminal law, it is still murder if you pay someone else to do the killing. The moral and legal responsibility rests with you even if you do not have bloody hands.

I sometimes use these examples to introduce the concept of carbon offsetting. Except that with offsetting, you’re paying someone else to undo the damage done by carbon intensive products and services such as air travel, manufacturing or burning fossil fuels. Straight away you can see the difference between voting, killing, and releasing greenhouse gases. Because climate change is a global problem in contrast to killing and voting, affecting the entirety of the Earth’s atmosphere, in theory it doesn’t matter where emissions come from, or where they are reduced, as long as the total cumulative carbon impact is reducing to zero. This way, climate action, unlike criminal justice, can be stretched out over time and space to create distance between those responsible for the damage, and those doing the work of fixing it.

But framing the climate challenge in this manner sets up a moral hazard, where high consuming individuals, firms and even countries can buy their way out of moral, political, and legal obligations to reduce carbon footprint and share limited planetary resources equitably. If you break something, the onus is surely on you to fix it, right? But as Professor Kevin Anderson of Manchester University likes to put it, offsetting is like trying to lose weight by paying someone in a poorer country to eat less chocolate.

Anyone can buy offset credits doing a simple internet search, which are sold by companies claiming sequestered, avoided, or removed emissions. Credits are generated by projects such as tree planting, bog and forest restoration, renewable energy or carbon capture and storage. The project is then evaluated to work out how much emission savings it is able to generate, and these savings are certified as saleable commodities known as “carbon credits”. Offsets are easily and cheaply available that claim to cover air travel or even purchases of LPG here in Ireland. Applegreen and Maxol – two of Ireland’s largest fuel station companies – both sell a slightly more expensive fuel option than the other choices available. The companies claim the greenhouse gas emissions from this fuel is fully offset and Applegreen even claims this fuel offsets all your driving emissions “immediately”. “Net zero” and “carbon neutral” claims and advertisements are even more confusing, and do not enable consumers to make informed choices. For example, “net zero” can describe a firm that has reduced its emissions by 90% and offset the remaining 10% or a firm that has only reduced its emissions by 10% and offset the remaining 90%. But these two cases are not equivalent either in terms of their effort or their overall climate impact.

While the overall standard of the voluntary carbon market has improved markedly following a legitimacy crisis in the early 2000s, this is an industry that still relies on distortion of science and disavowal to make money. It’s not so much the projects that are the problem: many of these follow strict standards and deliver real social and environmental benefits. It’s the claim that the credits are wiping out emissions elsewhere that is problematic. Why should those who can afford it get away with offsetting while the rest of us shoulder stringent emission reduction targets? Furthermore, it makes no sense to claim that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels – which remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years – can be offset by storing carbon in trees, which is only temporary and subject to deep uncertainties. Most of the offsets purchased globally in 2021 were from REDD+ forestry projects whose overall climate benefits remain highly controversial.

Buying these credits allows us to indulge in the fantasy that the climate problem is in hand, and that we’ve done our bit for the climate, as Dr. Robert Watt puts it, serving to perpetuate the profound gulf between real and symbolic climate action. It’s satisfying and reassuring, but ultimately “bullshit”, as the academic Hayley Stevenson notes. Offsetting doesn’t work because it is almost impossible to guarantee that the emissions sequestered or removed will be permanently avoided, or that the project wouldn’t have happened anyway (proving additionality). Facilitating these exchanges allows high emitting entities to continue to pollute the atmosphere whilst presenting an image of corporate responsibility.  At the very least, companies should be required to be transparent about their complete environmental and climate record, throughout their entire supply chain.

Countries are doing it too: A memorandum signed in May this year will allow Switzerland to offset its carbon emissions via climate projects in Thailand. There is nothing in law to stop Ireland buying offset credits to fulfil our climate targets for 2030 – a proposed limit on what was termed “offshore mitigation” was expressly ruled out when the climate bill was going through the Oireachtas in 2021. Offset projects are also being proposed by the agricultural lobby as a way of “balancing” emissions from livestock. However, carbon sequestration in land and soils is a notoriously complex process to measure, field by field.

In the coming months and years, consumers will be bombarded with corporate and agri-lobby claims relating to offsetting, net zero strategies and climate neutrality. Surely it is time to ban these advertisements and spare us all the greenwashing in advance?

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