Carbon offsets undermine the effort to tackle climate change.
Carbon offsets undermine the effort to tackle climate change, argues Kevin Smith as part of an Economist debate.This house believes that carbon offsets undermine the effort to tackle climate change. Any climate change practice or policy should be assessed against the criterion of whether or not it enables us to move closer to leaving more fossil fuels in the ground. Carbon offsets are doing exactly the opposite. They are providing individuals, companies and governments with the false opportunity of delaying the difficult decisions that need to be made by sanctioning and legitimising further fossil-fuel consumption. At their very hypothetical best, leaving aside the various social justice issues of badly implemented projects inflicted on communities with no say in the matter, if it were indeed possible to accurately quantify how much climate change benefit a project is supposed to bring about, and match that up against a similar amount of climate harm somewhere else, then offsets would still only be a “zero-sum” game rather than a reduction in emissions levels, and reductions are what are urgently needed. In its all too real practice the offsets market, like the subprime mortgage market, is characterised by numerous conflicts of interest, and an overriding profit-driven motivation to make large numbers of transactions regardless of what the actual quality of those transactions are. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the issue of additionality, that offset projects are supposed to represent emissions reductions that would have happened above and beyond what would have happened in a business-as-usual scenario. Numerous studies and examples have shown that lack of additionality is rife in the offsets market. On the voluntary side of things, there have been many newspaper exposes of how the Chicago Climate Exchange is selling rip-offsets, for example offsets were being generated from farmers who are using tilling practices that keep carbon in the soil, despite the fact that they were already doing this anyway. In the compliance market, the two countries that have provided the largest amount of clean development mechanism (CDM) projects and credits have been India and China. In 2007, one of the expert advisers to the CDM board said that a third of Indian projects lacked additionality, while a study from International Rivers showed that the vast majority of China’s many hundreds of hydro CDM projects were going to be developed anyway, regardless of carbon finance. When offset projects lack additionality, and are justifying an increase in emissions somewhere else, they represent a net increase in carbon emissions. All the activity in this fundamentally flawed market is generating an invisible, growing carbon bubble of supposed emissions reductions that never happened. Carbon offsets are also being used indiscriminately by corporations and governments as a means of justifying the development or expansion of carbon-intensive infrastructure that will lock us into future decades of high emissions levels. From the climate catastrophe waiting to happen that is the tar sands of Alberta, to new runways and the proposed first coal-fired power plant in the UK in over 30 years, to new oil refineries in the United States being built against the wishes of local communities, proponents are attempting to make the fundamentally unsustainable nature of these developments disappear by waving the magic offset wand. The longer we delay the difficult decisions that need to be made in the face of climate change, the more money it will cost, the more lives will be lost and the problem will be much worse. Carbon offsetting provides a dangerous illusion in facing away from these difficult decisions and are actively entrenching us further in the fossil-fuel economy. This is a contribution to the Economist debate See also Online debates demonstrate public skepticism about carbon trading by Larry Lohmann