Emissions heavy car? A lengthy trip abroad by plane? Polluting the only river source for entire communities? Cracking up the air con with the windows open? Luckily, there’s a cheap and convenient way to absolve your environmental sins; just add it to the tab. Heavily marketed and greenwashed by the corporate social responsibility teams of governments and corporations alike, carbon offsets allow you to tip some cash into a green collection bucket while continuing with the smog fuelled business as usual.
Under carbon offset schemes, the money is invested into green projects across the globe that promise to suck up greenhouse gases or to appease climate change so that you can sleep easy, knowing that cash coming from global warming inducing activities is being spent to avoid it. Often the cash is funnelled into renewable energy projects, from solar and wind farms to tidal and biomass power plants. Other times the money is spent on energy efficiency projects, for forestry or the removal of harmful effluents from industry and waste.
It’s an ingenious plan; without any meaningful political or social change at a small ticket price, climate change is solved. Governments and international treaties have lauded them as a get out of jail free card, setting up huge organisations to dole them out to corporations and people eager to pay penance. Beholden to international treaties like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accord which sets strict limits on carbon emissions, offsets offer a comfortable and marketable solution beyond overhauling warm climate inducing activities. Instead of incentivising companies to invest in new technologies to operate under cleaner perimeters, carbon offsets are readily applicable to the capitalist market. Under a scheme that sets limits on how much the nation can emit, businesses are granted ‘carbon credits’ to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions they are permitted to belch out. These credits, the total amount in circulation equivalent to the nations target emissions, can then be bought, sold, and traded to the highest bidder. Businesses who don’t operate under a carbon-heavy industry can sell their credits to companies who want to emit far more than their allowance. In recent years, the trading of carbon offsets has filtered down to the public. Lyft, Uber’s American equivalent, have now decided to offset the millions of trips their drivers make every week. Ben and Jerry’s are busy piloting schemes in London to offset the carbon of every tub of ice-cream sold. Even Fifa, in a joint initiative with the UN’s Climate Change body, offered free carbon offsets to ticket holders to the World Cup (though at a cap of 100,000 tonnes of carbon, less than 34,500 fans will be able to offset their travel tickets, compared with the hundreds of thousands of attendees).
But like many things under a capitalist market, the commodification of a resource leads quickly to corruption. A study has revealed that just 30p from every £1 paid to the actual schemes, with the rest going to bonuses, shares and admin fees. The projects themselves have been adapted from the hope of a green future into anything that can literally be translated as any reduction of greenhouse gases. Under this literal description, carbon offset investment projects can liberally include almost anything. From tapping a landfill fire for methane and converting it into carbon dioxide before releasing it into the atmosphere because it’s less harmful; to cutting down forests and replacing them with a fast growing and carbon-absorbing monoculture crop because it’s cheaper, laying wake to widespread diseases and biodiversity loss.
Even well-meaning schemes that invest in honest eco projects cannot truly uphold the carbon removal promised in exchange. Tree planting as a carbon offset is rigged with variables that impede the idea that they would effectively remove the carbon emitted. Saplings absorb a fraction of carbon that older trees would, so logging a 100-year-old oak forest in exchange for a swathe of cedars is not comparable. Additionally, trees only store carbon while they’re alive, which is then re-released when they are felled due to disease, decay, and fire, conditions that are all set to increase as our climate warms. Tree planting has often won the attention of many eco-marketing ploys, endorsed by Leonardo Dicaprio and The Rolling Stones, and infamously, Coldplay. The bands’ second album release was offset by planting 10’000 mango trees in Southern India. Endorsed by CarbonNeutral, village communities around Karnataka were handed hundreds of saplings each and a bag of fertiliser. Without water, pesticides, tools or advice, by now almost all of the trees have died, nullifying Coldplay’s efforts to remove the carbon emitted by the production of their album.
Timing is a serious issue with carbon offsets. When carbon emissions are so critical in our current situation, emissions must be cut on a yearly basis to avoid the most severe risks of global warming. But many of the projects that are invested into through carbon offsets are not completed until years after the supposed cancelled out carbon was paid off.
This adaptation of a once green and noble idea has led to many of the first adopters like Responsible Travel to revoke their offering of carbon offsets. The founder of the organisation, Justin Francis denounced the scheme, saying that the money can be used more effectively. His decision to stop carbon offsets from their environmentally conscious company was that offsets had become a “magic pill, a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card,” distracting people from making more significant behavioural changes, like flying less. Carbon offsets allow people to continue with business as usual instead of investing in new technologies that provide a sustainable solution.
The selling of carbon offsets is equated with the Catholic Church selling indulgences in the 15th and 16th centuries. Under this premise, sinners could buy off their crimes for a nominal fee and secure their place in the great beyond. Church-going sinners could pay off crimes of incest, poisoning and murder of relatives – which was cheaper than perjury. Under the selling of indulgences, killings or carbon, the rich are afforded the luxury of paying for their vices, guilt-free.
This lends itself to further global inequality, with the rich global north offshoring their problems and neglecting their responsibility to the world’s problem. Often these schemes fund projects on the other side of the world, from planting trees in the Amazon Rainforest to tapping trash fires in India. But with scientists and experts telling us that the 90% of emissions need to be cut from carbon-intensive activities along the western hemisphere by 2030, our penchant for exporting our problems is no concept of a solution.
Carbon offset schemes, while offering a grand idea, do not work. Sending money elsewhere to be responsible for the green revolution will not bring the change necessary, not while huge industries are still spewing out carbon at rates that cannot be solved. Ultimately, the most planet and carbon-friendly actions are to simply not emit greenhouse gases. Not continuing to spew them while handing some money over to a solar farm. With experts saying that we’re already past the tipping point of planet catastrophe, any money being spent on green solutions needs to be put to investment for new, renewable and sustainable technologies in manufacture, transport, energy and lifestyles.
If your guilt does not go assuaged or you’re a jet-set environmentalist, the best solution is to donate the money you were willing to spend on an offset directly to a green project local to you. But in the words of Anja Kollmuss, a scientist in the Stockholm Environment Institute; “Buying offsets is a nice idea, just like giving money to a soup kitchen is a nice idea, but that doesn’t end world hunger”.