Are Carbon Offsets Still a Thing?

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CC BY 2.0. Do offsets make this flight to Lisbon OK?/ Lloyd Alter

They have always been controversial, and they may well be counterproductive.

TreeHugger emeritus Sami Grover tweets:

Carbon offsets used to be a big deal on TreeHugger, but even if you go back to our Go Green guides of a dozen years ago, we questioned their value, writing that actions were better than offsets.

Implementation of real changes in your life will have more impact than any carbon offset you purchase. You see all these statistics about it being the equivalent of taking x number of cars off the road. Catching the train, tram, bus or riding your bike also takes a car off the road! Voting with your physical presence carries more weight than a mostly invisible deduction on your bank statement.

Flying is where it all breaks down, because often the only option is not to travel, or to take very long drives.

It's not like the people Sami works with are jetting off to Disney World; they have to travel to do their jobs, and are doing good work. So should they be buying offsets?

Much depends on the offset.

Many credits, particularly those related to reforestation, have been found to be useless; the forests were being replanted anyway, or the work wasn't actually being done. ProPublica did a big exposé about a reforestation project in Brazil and concluded that carbon credits for forest preservation may be worse than nothing. Lisa Song writes:

In case after case, I found that carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with. Ultimately, the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO2, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last.

There are offsets that are checked by third parties and verified; The Gold Standard "ensures projects that reduced carbon emissions featured the highest levels of environmental integrity and also contributed to sustainable development" and points to some of them. They also do a very good job of explaining why carbon credits were written into the Kyoto Accord and are a recognized tool:

Carbon markets provide the infrastructure for carbon trading or ‘offsetting’ -- the process by which businesses and individuals can be accountable for their unavoidable emissions by funding certified GHG emission reduction projects elsewhere in the world.

They are not simply "permissions to pollute."

Carbon credits are an investment in emission reductions to drive the transition to a low-carbon economy... companies that set ‘Science Based Targets,’ that is, internal emission reduction targets in line with what science tells us to limit warming to 2C and then go beyond by supporting projects that reduce global emissions, are demonstrating best practice corporate climate action. By choosing Gold Standard projects for their carbon credit purchases, they are also helping to bring sustainable development benefits – like access to energy and water, new jobs, and better health – to communities around the world.

Others disagree, and suggest that they are exactly that, permissions to pollute or to assuage our guilt. Naomi Klein wrote in her book This Changes Everything:

But most of all, regular, non celebrity people were called upon to exercise their consumer power—not by shopping less but by discovering new and exciting ways to consume more. And if guilt set in, well, we could click on the handy carbon calculators on any one of dozens of green sites and purchase an offset, and our sins would instantly be erased.

Camilla Cavendish of the Financial Times complained recently about offsets offered by EasyJet, which flies people around Europe for far less cost than taking the train, an available option. Shell Oil is even buying offsets and giving them away to people who buy their gas and diesel. She says they are selling them too cheaply, and that it is all a bit of a scam. She then reminds us of the Catholic Church selling indulgences (which every other journalist did a decade ago):

Carbon offsetting is shaping up to be the greatest mis-selling scandal since the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel sold pardons to redeem the dead. Martin Luther attacked this practice in 1517, in his 95 theses. Five hundred years later, those of us who seek planetary redemption should reduce our carbon footprint in ways that we control — rather than relying on middlemen who may or may not plant trees. The road to hell, I seem to remember, was paved with good intentions.

James Ellsmoor complains in Forbes that offsets actually increase emissions.

Offsetting is counterproductive as it indirectly stimulates the development of new carbon-intensive infrastructure. It reduces the demand for low-carbon alternatives and stimulates airlines to deliver more routes and governments to approves more runways. Instead, those efforts could improve low-carbon travel and communications technologies.

But he concludes that they may be the best of a bad lot of options.

Globally, flights emit around 2.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, although this share is slowly increasing. With impending risks from anthropogenic climate change, these emissions pose a serious threat. While reducing overall flight volumes should be the ultimate goal, offsetting is an additional powerful tool that can be used simultaneously. Sometimes, flights are a necessity and carbon offsets are currently the only option.

Plane from portugal

I just offset my flight in this plane, $52 for a Gold Standard project/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

For Sami's organization, perhaps the good work that they do is enough. Personally, feeling guilty as I fly to speak at conferences about reducing carbon emissions, I am going to start buying carbon offsets again, from reputable sources like The Gold Standard; in Canada I can do this via Bullfrog's Less; I just offset my recent lectures in Lisbon.

In the end, nothing has changed in a dozen years. I know I shouldn't be flying, that carbon offsets are not good enough. But it is better than nothing.