Carbon offsets can do more environmental harm than good | RenewEconomy

Carbon offsets can do more environmental harm than good

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Globally and across consumer companies, carbon offsets are not only green-washing, but can do more harm than good.

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The Conversation

While QANTAS offsets go to protecting forests, other carbon offsets can do more harm than good. Claudio Jofré Larenas/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


When was the last time you booked a flight? That extra A$1 in the final stages of booking may seem a small price to pay for offsetting the carbon emissions you generate travelling by air. But globally and across consumer companies, offsets are not only green-washing, but can do more harm than good.

Many consumer companies, from airlines to electricity companies to car dealerships and even some wedding and funeral homes, give their customers the opportunity to “neutralise” the environmental impacts of their products through carbon offsetting.

Offsets give the consumer the impression that their consumption has no negative net effect on the environment, and allows companies to gain green credentials. But in reality, the scale of change that can be achieved by voluntary individual offset schemes is entirely disproportionate to the scale of the problem of global warming.

Offsetting responsibilities

For a start, very few customers elect to pay the extra sum to offset their emissions, about 5% in the case of airline passengers.

Yet providing carbon offsetting options has public relations value for companies, allowing them to gain green legitimisation without having to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This form of elective carbon offsetting shifts the responsibility for greenhouse gas reductions onto individuals and away from institutions, corporations and governments, whose actions can make a more significant difference.

While we don’t know exactly where airline offset money goes, carbon offset money is mainly spent on investments in renewable energy, efficient energy projects, methane capture, and biosequestration projects that absorb CO2, such as tree plantations. In 2012, 34% of the global voluntary offset market was spent on renewable energy projects and 32% on biosequestration.

Many of these offsets are of dubious value in terms of genuine greenhouse gas reductions. Planting trees as offsets is particularly problematic.

The problems with plantations

Tree plantations are not always good for the environment. They suck up much of the water in an area, increase erosion and compaction of the soil, reduce soil fertility and increase the risk of fire.

A Blue Gum plantation in Gippsland, Victoria Tamara Hall/ Private contributor

The trees are planted in rows of the same age and species, requiring heavy use of agrichemicals including fertilisers, chemical weeders and herbicides that pollute the environment and kill native animals. Because plantations create monocultures, they do not provide the variations of form and structure found in a forest.

There are also problems when it comes to working out the quantity of trees needed to offset one tonne of carbon. According to the US government figures, 25 tree seedling growing for ten years would offset 1 tonne of carbon dioxide. However, even the best methodologies for calculating this are inaccurate. The amount of carbon dioxide a growing tree will absorb varies depending on tree species, soil type, amount of soil litter and below-ground biomass.

Plantations aren’t the only concern. The international Voluntary Gold Standard for offsets favours renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects over tree plantations or methane capture. However, it is difficult to regulate or assess the effectiveness of these projects.

Offshoring offsets

Qantas offset schemes, through offsetting companies, include native forest protection in Tasmania, wind power in China, more efficient wood stoves in Cambodia, and replacing fossil fuels with biomass for powering cement plants in Thailand. All these projects meet the Australian Government National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS), as do Virgin Australia’s. However it is difficult to say whether this is a sound use of offset money.

How can we be sure that more efficient wood stoves would not have been purchased anyway, that the wind power plants in China would not have been built, or that the forest in Tasmania would have been logged without Qantas paying for its protection?

Weld Valley, Tasmania. QANTAS has contributed some money from offset payments to protect Tasmanian forests Ta Ann Truths/Flickr, CC BY

Offsets that are located in countries that have already committed to greenhouse gas reduction targets are likely to be double counted, first as an offset and second as a reduction in the total national greenhouse gas inventory, a reduction that would have had to happen anyway.

Buying up cheap offsets in developing nations at US$3.50 per tonne in 2013 is a short-term solution that only postpones the necessary phasing out of fossil-fuel dependence in wealthy nations, at a time when such action is becoming urgent. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions in poor countries is not enough to prevent further global warming. We should be giving first priority to becoming less dependent on fossil fuels in Australia through changing the way we generate electricity and making manufacturing less energy intensive, as well as promoting alternatives to automobile travel and truck freight.

Carbon offsets are a greenwashing mechanism that enables individuals to buy themselves green credentials without actually changing their consumption habits, and nations to avoid the more difficult structural and regulatory change necessary to prevent further global warming.


Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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  1. Leon Young 6 years ago

    I hope an informed response is published to this article. Much of the authors concerns can be addressed based on the standard of the offset used. These standards actually deal with the issues of ‘would this have happened anyway?’. If it would, then the offset is unlikely to be credited under the stricter standard mechanisms. While few would argue against reduction of emissions in preference to offsetting, the fact is where the emission is going to occur anyway, a good quality offset is absolutely a positive thing. The tone of this article discourages offset use in general, which is highly irresponsible. The Kyoto Protocol and all subsequent large scale solutions such as trading and pricing mechanisms have included offsets as without them, we have no hope.

  2. David Osmond 6 years ago

    For anyone interested in offsetting their carbon emissions using renewable energy, a great way is via C3.

    It’s the cheapest place for individuals to purchase renewable energy certificates that I’m aware of. It’s tax deductible, you can choose a wind farm that you’d like to purchase the certificates from, and you’re not letting a big generation company or airline skim some profits from your purchase (ACTEW AGL charge me $75 per certificate, compared to $43-$44 here).

    Plus a fraction of your sale gets donated to a local charity or environmental group of your choice.

  3. Jo 6 years ago

    The article really supports the suspicions I have in regard of offsetting. I can see a whole series of industries and banks washing their hands in the process, and only a fraction of the money is going to do something good.
    But there is also a political and ideological issue with offsetting. Some private offsetting, even with the best intentions, will not change our reality in regard of CO2 emissions. Only changes in law and regulations will.

    This is the same as complaining about wealthy companies paying much less than 30% tax. Well, if the can do that legally, they should. This is the responsibility they have towards their share holders. What has to change is the law that allows them to do that, not the behavior of the companies.

  4. Justin Foster 6 years ago

    I agree that there needs to be “difficult structural and regulatory change necessary to prevent further global warming” (although I think term ‘climate change’
    better represents the problem). I am also wary of corporations ‘green washing’, However, the remainder of this ‘article’ is somewhat misleading and poorly researched. Let me first make the point that the only way to reduce global carbon emissions is to put a price on it – there are a number of effective mechanisms in place to facilitate this market. You site lack of consumer uptake in purchasing carbon offsets using a dubious figure of 5% “from a Qantas spokesperson”. Lack of consumer interest is surely not a reflection on the effectiveness of carbon offsets, rather it could be attributed poor marketing. You suggest that all forestry related
    projects are plantations, this is not true- there area a number of REDD+
    projects, using VCS/CCBA standard already operating in areas of natural forests. There are some wonderful examples here; Finally you erroneously state that there is not effective, scientific way of quantifying carbon stored in forests.
    I suggest you refer to documents compiled by UNFCC SBSTA; for further information. Also refer to the innovative work being doneby the Carnegie Airborne Observatory; Carbon offsets play a major role in mitigating the effects of global climate change.

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