What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offsetting is the practice of paying organisations, on your behalf, money towards projects that compensate for your emission damage. For instance, an oil or airline company may donate $15 million annually to an organisation that reforests land or improves carbon capture operations. Companies like Delta Airlines during 2017 – 2019 purchased 7.8 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (Co2). The founder of BDA China, Duncan Clark explains: people can offset entire carbon-based activities like flying by visiting offsetting websites using “the online tools to calculate the emissions of their trip, and then pay[…] to reduce emissions elsewhere in the world.” Consequently making the flight carbon-neutral.
Unfortunately, however, carbon offsetting is yet again another example of green capitalism failing to live up to its name. Instead of addressing the issue at hand and capping carbon emissions at zero (as for industries that can’t – goodbye), we’ve now created a market for producing emissions with carbon credits. Defying adequate climate action, companies now have the ability to trade pollution with one another. In many cases, companies within the oil and gas industry (for example) have actually increased profits from the very global issue designed to take them out of business.
A new social inequality – carbon colonialism:
The major offset-producing countries include Brazil, Peru, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Cambodia, Kenya, Bolivia, and Indonesia. Whilst, conversely, the vast majority of carbon credit purchases are from the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. The Global South sacrificing for the North. As for those who rig the financial benefits of the carbon credit industry, offsetting is a win-win situation for all involved: providing jobs for those in developing nations and cutting the emissions of the privileged North.
Carbon offsetting from a societal perspective, however, produces far greater harm than good. According to The Hill, “forestry and land use offsets represented the greatest share of transactions in the voluntary offset market (56.4 percent)” in 2019. The problem with this is that as carbon credit purchases increase, more land throughout the South is consumed. Land that was/could otherwise be used for farming, communal spaces etc. “In the emerging carbon economy, the Global North continues to pollute, while communities in the Global South lose land and sovereignty.”
A 2011 study by Oxfam revealed a program owned by the NFA – a company that hoped “to attract more revenue from carbon credits” – expanded land ownership throughout Kenya due to the increased offset demand, leading to the eviction of local residents. The study estimated that the “number of evictees is in the region of 22,500” yet “that figure could be substantially higher.” The NFA was granted a license to the additional land back in 2005 for the tree development and swiftly began removing the former residents; “illegal encroachers”, the locals were called.
I remember my land, three acres of coffee, many trees – mangoes and avocados. I had five acres of banana, I was given awards as a model farmer. I had cows for milk, ten beehives, two beautiful permanent houses. My land gave me everything from my living to my children’s education.Francis Longoli (former resident)
This is just one example of land sacrifices throughout the South for the benefit of cooperations and the emissions up North. Many indigenous groups, moreover, have also been fiercely forced off their land to make way for stale and cold tree plantations.
As will be explored later, carbon offsetting also fails on many environmental accounts.
Types of offsetting:
The 3 most mainstream offsetting schemes people or businesses invest in today typically include:
|Land management & forestry||Land management & forestry offsets work by either preserving forests currently under threat from deforestation or increasing forest cover by planting trees. 2 examples of the latter include: afforestation (planting trees on land where they do not naturally occur such as grasslands) or reforestation (planting trees on land that has been harmed from logging or natural disasters).|
|Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS)||CCUS refers to technology, much like vacuum cleaners on steroids, that absorbs Co2 from the atmosphere typically near industrial operations that can be used for multiple different purposes: either to accumulate and compress Co2 to be used in many various product applications, or to be collected and deposited deep into the earth’s surface to be trapped permanently. According to the IEA as of 2021, CCUS only has the current capacity to accumulate 40 million tonnes (0.11% of 2021 emissions).|
|Renewable energy||Renewable energy offsets work by purchasing a significant equity stake in a renewable energy development project such as a solar farm. The Carbon Offset Guide believes that “[effectively], you would be a carbon offset project developer.”|
What are the problems with carbon offsetting?
1. Gaming the system
Naomi Klein in her novel, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, explores how – through the carbon market laws established by the UN – oil companies have been awarded carbon credits through lucrative practices. For example, oil companies that set fire to the natural gas (flaring) released after mining “have argued that they should be paid if they stop engaging in this enormously destructive practice.” Subsequently, many oil companies have indeed received carbon credits and “green development” certificates from the UN for stopping the practice of flaring, whilst continuing all the other carbon-emitting activities. These carbon credits awarded to oil giants can then be sold off for corporate profits.
Embarrassingly, in countries like China and India, companies have been awarded carbon credits by intentionally releasing unnecessary harmful greenhouse gas like HFC-23 and burning them to make it seem as if the companies are taking action to reduce emissions. A group that petitioned to the UN, trying to reverse HFC-23 project policies explains: “[there is] overwhelming evidence that manufactures are gaming [the system] by producing more potent greenhouse gases just so they can get paid to destroy them.” In an incredible instance, 93.4% of an Indian firm’s total revenue in 2012 came from selling carbon credits.
2. Just killing time…and the planet
As mentioned above, land management & forestry contributes to over half of all offsets globally – yet projects like tree planting take an incredibly long time. According to Greenpeace, “[a] newly-planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises.” Offsetting emissions in 2022 would mean waiting, more or less, until 2042 to truly reach a state of carbon neutrality. Even then, many tree plantation projects fail due to droughts, wildfires, tree diseases and deforestation. According to a paper written in 2015, over 75% of offsetting programs have failed to make up for the number of emissions initially produced. However, if such programs were replaced with true emission reduction schemes, emissions would have been 600 million tonnes lower.
As for forest conservation efforts, many are located in countries such as Brazil where illegal logging activity runs rife, meaning even forests monitored vigorously by conservationists, still run the risk of being affected by unlawful activity. Mongabay believes “that 90% of deforestation in Brazil is illegal.”
3. Only so much space
During the highly anticipated COP26 event in 2021, countries across the globe promised to begin planting millions of trees as part of their offsetting programs. In the UAE, 100 million mangroves would be planted by 2030, and India would plant enough trees to cover 33.3% of its land area. Furthermore, according to The Guardian wealthy individuals like “Jeff Bezos, announced a $1bn fund towards planting trees” to revitalise African grasslands and restore landscapes across North America.
This all sounds brilliant in theory, however, such ambitions are simply too large (literally). There isn’t enough space for practical application. Based on an Oxfam study, to reach net-zero by 2050 using land-based carbon sequestration schemes would require 1.6 billion hectares of land: greater than all global farmland combined.
As for companies alone, Shell would require an area almost the size of Italy to offset just 35% of its emissions by 2050. Equally, BP would demand an environment of 22.5 million hectares – about the size of Ghana.
Simply using land management & forestry to reach a global state of net-zero by 2050 would require a region the size of Australia and Brazil combined.
4. Loss of Indigenous rights
Despite being pushed off of their land (read carbon colonialism above), many indigenous peoples’ territories – especially in forests – have become increasingly dictative. As large areas of forest, inhabited by indigenous people, are purchased by countries or companies, rangers have the authority to restrict indigenous communal practices like hunting for deer or chopping down trees for firewood. In 2014, a Brazilian offset program ministered by the Nature Conservancy for Chevron and others, prohibited the Guarani people from foraging for wood, fishing or hunting. Some cases explained by Naomi Klein claimed that local people were even shot at and killed by rangers for collecting berries or mushrooms; as well as having crops uprooted. As land becomes cooperative environmental zones and is taken away, so too are Indigenous people’s rights, practices and safety.
5. Preventing true action
Above all, carbon offsets defend inadequate climate action and support a future of shipping problems onto others. A 2022 study revealed that of the 25 climate action plans set out by major companies, 19 of them intend to use carbon offsets to claim net-zero. NewClimate Institute believes that nature-based carbon sequestration solutions these companies intend to use are “unsuitable for individual offsetting claims.” The human rights group, Global Witness, suggests that offsets are nothing more than a way to make fossil fuels appear environmentally friendly. Furthermore, experts and even organisers behind certain offsetting programs claim that they “will do virtually nothing to decrease carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”, falling well short of neutrality.
Green capitalism at its finest. Whilst theoretically, carbon offsets could serve as a vital asset in curbing emissions, such techniques fail on many accounts. Despite only 5 issues presented above, there are many more that places further scrutiny on carbon offsetting and its supposed effectiveness, such as the inadequate carbon calculations in numerous programs.
There is, however, a silver lining in offsets: as another market approach to climate action fails, it’s important to acknowledge how climate action should truly be tackled whilst silencing the intrusive and convincing voice of money that riddles our capitalist economies. We need renewal, not removal. Carbon action, not offsets.