On Carbon Offsets

The New Internationalist has posted a series of illuminating articles on carbon offsets (thanks to Martin for bringing these to my attention). And they’re damning:

Climate change is ultimately a narrative of oil, coal and gas. It is the story of humanity’s plundering of the earth’s fossil carbon, burning it and releasing it into the active carbon cycle, in turn disrupting the balance of carbon in air, soil and seas. If we were to succeed in harvesting all the ‘locked’ carbon in fossil fuels and setting it free to circulate in the atmosphere, we’d render the earth inhospitable to life as we know it. Unless we want to live on Venus, our task therefore is to leave that fossil carbon in the ground. This basic requirement, however, is precisely what the carbon market (of which offsets are a part) has been set up to avoid.

Rather than stop the flow of oil, coal and gas, the offset industry tells us that we can continue as normal. We can drive as much as want, fly as much as we want, and eat our non-organic Coldplay mangoes in the Canadian winter. We need not reduce; in fact we can now consume our way out of the problem. Now we can buy offsets on top of our Caribbean holiday and thus ‘neutralize’ our impacts. It is a seductive argument.

But it is a falsehood – a con.

The articles explore the origins of tree planting as carbon offsets, the emerging market in carbon offsets, and the lack of accountability and verification. It’s depressing stuff for those of us who are looking for a quick fix, a way to placate our conscience and continue to live our GHG emitting lives. Politicians, energy corporations and new carbon offset companies–intentionally or unintentionally–taking advantage of consumers’ good faith and lack of due diligence to promise guilt free fossil fuel consumption while doing less than promised. Some of the promises are truly dangerous in their over-simplification:

One company, Australian-based Climate Friendly, promises us that ‘in five minutes and for the cost of a cappuccino a week you can go climate neutral’.5 Another, US-based Drive Neutral advertises that ‘for about the cost of a single tank of gas, you can neutralize your CO2 emissions for an entire year’.

Meanwhile car manufacturers and oil companies are finding carbon offsets to be great PR with little to no sacrifice:

Ford motor company has just launched its own offset initiative in partnership with US offsetter TerraPass.9 The average fuel economy for a Ford car is 18.8 miles per gallon. That’s last in US Environmental Protection Agency list of top six automakers.10 According to environmental studies professor Michael Dorsey of Dartmouth College in the US, ‘Ford is playing games and peddling gimmicks in its new partnership with TerraPass. If Ford wants to reduce CO2 and get serious about climate change it will increase its fleet’s overall miles per gallon (MPG) and not peddle spurious offsets based on cooked MPG numbers.’

Kirsten and I have talked about the position Climate Changers should take on carbon offsets. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that, as a general policy, we are opposed to the promotion of carbon offsets for three reasons:

1. They make it too easy for people to assuage their guilt and avoid having to make conservation and energy-efficiency changes in their own lives. Carbon offets perpetuate our dependence to fossil fuels, which ultimately needs to be broken if we have any hope of maintaining a climate in which we and other species can exist.

2. Carbon offsets undermine the goals we have for Climate Changers. We want people to move along a progression of engagement–from awareness to taking actions in their own lives to thinking beyond themselves–and carbon offsets serve as an end-run around all of that. Why expend the energy on these things when you can just put being “carbon neutral” on your credit card? And, frankly, purchasing a carbon offset is far simpler and cheaper than even purchasing one of our starter kits. There is a simple reason for this: they don’t accurately represent the true costs of our fossil fuel use.

3. The voluntary carbon offset market is entirely unregulated. Therefore, it’s very difficult to verify that the offset projects being invested in are having their intended impact. There are also a series of other economic and ethical issues related to the communities in which these offset projects are being invested. And the various players are all over the map in terms of how they calculate impact and what they charge for offsets, as the piece “Carbon Offsets Facts” points out. As an aside, the need for consistent, transparent, and expert-reviewed data on GHG emissions and the impact of conservation & energy-efficiency actions is desperately needed. That is why one of our priorities is to tackle this problem.

All that said, we are considering including adding in a carbon offset option for air travel because, right now, no alternative exists other than flying less. And telling people that is a lot like saying “walk more, drive less.”

It appears that while the carbon offsets market is growing rapidly, so too are the voices of those who oppose this over-simplified and misleading solution. A series of articles have come out in recent months about the “dark side” of offsets and groups like Carbon Trade Watch are actively fighting them. I believe that there is a place for a market-based cap & trade system, but it needs to be regulated. And I also believe that “offset” projects investing in renewable technologies are a worthwhile cause. But we have to fight the perception that this kind of easy fix is achievable. There are easy things that people can do (changing your lightbulbs, for example) but ultimately we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Period. Carbon Trade Watch points out the need for social action projects:

Social change is a necessary precursor to dealing with climate change.There is an urgent need to restructure society away from the fossil fuels-based, carcentred, throwaway economy ‘business as usual’ scenario to one in which we pragmatically reduce our emissions levels in the context of a renewable energy-based, participatory, diversified transport, reuse/recycle economy. No matter how many low-energy light bulbs you install, or how much recycling you do, there is still the need for more systemic changes to take place in society. No amount of individualistic action is going to bring about this change in itself.

Such changes will not happen without community organising and collective political action.Yet there are no offset schemes that encourage individuals to engage in collective action to bring about wider structural change. Offset schemes place the onus for climate action on individuals acting in isolation from others.This inhibits their political effectiveness.

And they point to some examples of success:

One of the most inspiring recent examples of effective climate action has been the victory of the Ogoni women in stopping Shell from flaring gas from its oil fields in Nigeria. Not only was this the source of numerous pollution and health problems for the Ogoni people; it was also the single largest source of CO2 emissions in sub-Saharan Africa.This hard-won victory, a huge success in terms of both social justice and climate change, depended on community empowerment, confrontational politics and international solidarity.

Personally, I believe that there is a place for both individual action and community organizing. In fact, I believe that one can lead to the other and our goal with Climate Changers is to inspire that shift.

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