Carbon Offsetting – a dangerous distraction

June 27, 2009

The science is clear – there is an urgent need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. We can only control those greenhouse gases which we as a species are causing to be emitted into our atmosphere in ever larger volumes. This pollution is causing climate change which is already having serious negative impacts on the environment, the food security and the livelihoods of our fellow human beings.

The principle that pollution should be controlled and that the polluter should pay to avoid causing pollution by capturing and dealing with pollution at source was established in the nineteenth century. We do not accept that asbestos, sulphides (which cause acid rain) or chemical effluent can be discharged into our environment without let or hindrance in return for preserving freshwater in Canada. Green house gases are pollutants like any other; they poison our environment and make it less habitable for ourselves and other species.

The purchasing of carbon offsets is a dangerous distraction, the purchase of medieval pardons, permits to continue to pollute, would not be accepted for asbestos, sulphides or chemical effluent. They should not be accepted for carbon pollution – a form of pollution which threatens far more disastrous consequence for our species and our environment.  – offsetting has become the Trojan Horse of anti-pollution strategies for greenhouse gases.

Friends of the Earth have just produced a damming report on carbon offsetting.
Carbon Offsetting – a dangerous distraction

1.    The scientists say that we need to curb global greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40% in developed countries and 15-30% in developing countries. Offsetting undermines this.  Action is required in both developed and developing countries – we cannot solve our problem by paying others to do it for us, the developing world is struggling to make its own cuts.
2.    Many of the initiatives which carbon offsets are used to pay for to cut carbon emissions would have happened anyway.
3.    Carbon offsets rarely guarantee emissions cuts and Friends of the Earth demonstrate that they often exaggerate the amount they will cut. The United States Government Audit Office in 2008 cautioned that “it is not possible to ensure that every credit represents a real, measurable, and long-term reduction in emissions”[p.16]. Many carbon offset products share the characteristics of toxic debt.
4.    Offsetting delays the tackling of carbon pollution by reducing the burning of fossil fuels and securing greater efficiency – offsetting is preferred because it is cheaper. Offsetting was introduced in the closing hours of the Kyoto negotiations in 1997 to give developed countries some flexibility in meeting their targets. In the EU more than 50% of the cuts expected by 2020 are permitted to come from offsetting – offsetting has become the Trojan Hose of anti-pollution strategies for greenhouse gases.
5.    Financing interventions to reduce emissions in developing countries encourages them, through subsidies, to develop new infrastructure which is highly polluting so as to create opportunities to clean up this pollution using tried and tested existing technology. So the process encourages them to adopt known polluting technologies so that the cleaning up of the emission from those processes can be used to offset emissions in developed countries. This is effectively subsidising the development of carbon polluting plants in the developing world – incredible? [§4.5 of the Friends of the Earth Report]

The road to hell is paved with good intentions – it is time to move on from carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is part of the problem not part of the solution.

This is not to argue that all carbon offset projects are unworthy, some do assist people to adapt to the consequences of climate change and those of us who contribute to climate change have a responsibly to assist those adversely affected to adapt . Our responsibility is to mitigate by flying less and more carbon efficiently and then to fund adaptation, see Flysmart.

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