Exoneration for environmental sins?

In August earlier this year I started an internship just outside Chicago, where I will be until December. In order to get to the US, I had to take an (almost) inevitable Transatlantic flight from the UK, despite efforts to book a room on a freighter ship.

Fine, I thought, at least I am taking a Transatlantic flight for a good reason and travelling for a decent amount of time. After all, taking a long-haul flight is one of the most environmentally polluting actions an individual can do. I wondered if there was anything I could do to counteract these extremely environmentally damaging actions.

I had heard of carbon offsetting as a concept, whereby a company or individual donates money towards a project which seeks to counteract their emissions. Such projects often involve tree planting or supporting renewable energy development, often implemented in developing countries. However, I was unsure of how genuine or effective such programmes are. This blog piece seeks to evaluate their effectiveness in actually helping reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in the atmosphere.

What is carbon offsetting?

There are many forms of carbon offsetting schemes. The general idea is that the buyer seeks to counteract their own carbon emissions by paying towards a project which seeks to either reduce future emissions in some way or to take GHGs from the atmosphere. Offsetting schemes might be based on technology (such as those which deploy clean energy generation methods), economics (such as those which buy carbon credits from an emissions trading scheme and rip them up), or ecology (such as those which plant new trees or perform reforestation).

The price of carbon offsetting can vary wildly, depending on the type of project bought into, whether it is to be paid for by an individual, company or government and the region of the world in which it is to be implemented. For instance, replanting trees is more beneficial in regions which have been most heavily deforested. In recent years, this has been Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. China was particularly heavy-handed on deforestation in late 20th Century. However, there does exist a new plan to plant one billion trees in the country – part of an attempt to become world leader in conservation. Often referred to as The World’s Factory, China produces understandably high emissions. That fact, combined with the severe deforestation it previously caused, means that the mass planting of trees is an attempt for China to tip the carbon scales back toward equality. For the remainder of this piece, I will focus on carbon offsetting for the individual.

Given the myriad, seemingly daily advancements in technology and the high status of self-styled benevolent tech company CEOs such as Elon Musk, it is also tempting to consider investment in ‘green’ technologies as a form of carbon offsetting. The money contributed through such a scheme may not immediately and directly contribute towards the removal of GHGs from the atmosphere, or the reduction of emissions, but the hope is that one day it would. For example, one might invest in the expansion of renewable energy generation, or the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) methods.

Carbon offsetting schemes are often remarkably cheap to buy into. Offsetting a Transatlantic flight would cost on the order of £10-40, which is at least an order of magnitude less than the cost of the flight itself. However, prices do vary, depending on the project to be contributed towards and the action to be offset.

Too good to be true?

This all seems very convenient. If all it takes to counteract one’s polluting ways is to donate a fraction of what those polluting actions costed financially then climate change can be solved with ease. It seems ideal: anyone feeling a pang of environmental guilt can just make a little donation and then go back to their daily lives.

One reason carbon offsetting is currently so cheap is because there are a lot of ‘low hanging fruits’ still yet to be implemented, which are cheap, easy and uncontroversial. Changing one light bulb to a low-energy version, for instance, can potentially reduce emissions by 250kg over 6 years, for example. Once such ‘simple fixes’ have been exhausted, it is likely that the price of carbon offsets will begin to rise.

Yes, taking a Transatlantic flight releases as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as is absorbed by three trees over their lifetimes. However, that flight takes a few hours, whilst those trees live for decades or perhaps centuries. Over the course of those many years, the three trees will need to be (initially) nurtured, protected from logging and checked for disease or damage from time to time. That this will actually happen over the entire tree lifetime becomes less obvious when one considers that there are relatively few companies and organisations existing today which have been around for a century or more…

What’s more, there is not always a guarantee from the carbon offsetters that they will actually go through with their side of the bargain, nor that the three trees planted in your name are unique, and not shared by 100 other polluters.

There is certainly a lot of scepticism as to whether carbon offsets are legitimate, effective or even a good idea at all. Not least of these is George Monbiot, who compares the sale of carbon offsets to the Catholic Church accepting money to absolve sins. Monbiot argues that, by paying for carbon offsetting, an environmentally-conscious consumer simply acts to remove their guilt, after which they are free to go back to their polluting ways. Similar examples of guilt removal can be found in modern ‘green consumption’ behaviour patterns: using reusable coffee cups is certainly applaudable, but coffee can also be environmentally damaging to farm and distribute. It is all too easy to be happy with our positive behaviour in one aspect, whilst forgetting or ignoring other, negative impacts. Some go as far as to suggest that it is not climate denial which poses the greatest problems for action on climate change, but climate apathy.

I agree that there is certainly a deep relationship between consumerist behaviour patterns and the lack of sufficient action on climate change. As well as companies playing a major part in causing the climate crisis, there are a number of undertones of consumerists driving toward a solution which will benefit themselves, as well as the environment. Think of green tech companies and carbon offsetting companies – at the end of the day, they are making money and sustaining a business model based on helping people to reduce their carbon footprints.

On a related note, Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel give a detailed and far-ranging account on the development of capitalism through frontiers and the cheapening of things such as nature, food and lives in their recent book A history of the world in seven cheap things. In the conclusion, they shed light on the conditions which may well precipitate the demise of capitalism and give recommendations on alternative directions in which human society should be guided.

Instead of labelling the modern era as the anthropocene, Moore and Patel take the blame off the shoulders of the individual somewhat, and prefer the label capitalocene. That is, capitalism and the pursuit of cheapness are the root causes of the mass environmental degradation we see today.

In the opposite view of leaving the blame of inaction wholly upon individuals, the inaction of authority is left unquestioned. As can be quoted in an excellent related article by Eleanor Penny,

The blame really lies with these few. With the people recklessly profiteering from climate chaos, and those unwilling to challenge the system which allows them to wreak havoc. Around 100 companies are responsible for roughly 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. They know exactly what they’re doing. Exxon and BP and all of them have produced pioneering research into prospective impacts of Climate change. They factor them into their business models. All whilst lobbying governments to continue supporting the fossil fuel industry.

A minuscule minority of people have made themselves incredibly wealthy by committing what amounts to calculated global arson. And some people are still blaming the residents of the burning building. If we’re to avert catastrophe, we need to start calling the real criminals to account.”

And it isn’t just companies who know full well of the damage they are responsible for. In a recent, scandalous leak, it became apparent that the Trump Administration knows full well the climatic impacts of its greatly reduced stance (to put it mildly) on tackling environmental issues.

Moore and Patel go as far as to say that they do not see the individual’s carbon footprint as a useful measure of anything at all. From this viewpoint, the concept of carbon offsetting makes even less sense from the individual perspective.


Action > inaction

And yet, the actions that we each perform do contribute to the ongoing degradation of the environment which has given us everything we have ever known. Surely it must be better to try and do something to counter one’s environmentally damaging actions than to simply shrug the shoulders?

Regarding claims that carbon offsetting schemes are scams designed to prey upon guilty liberals, there are a number of schemes which do come with guarantees that the money donated is going where it is claimed. Programmes labelled as verified carbon units are more reliable than other schemes. The Verified Carbon Standard was designed to enable trust to be put in offsetting schemes and is upheld in projects run by an array of carbon offsetting companies, such as Carbon Footprint and Carbon Neutral.

Historically, the planting of trees has been the most clearly effective and reliable means of carbon offsetting, provided that it is implemented properly. However, there are a variety of new projects including (but far from restricted to) the distribution of efficient cooking stoves in Kenya, prevention of wildfires in Australia and extracting gases from US landfill sites to generate electricity for which the impacts are more immediate and obvious. Such projects often have the added benefit of helping communities.

Trees are far better at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any CCS technologies which exist today. Yes, one could invest in CCS, with the hope that some day it will be a mature enough technology to extract enormous amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. However, there that is putting a lot of faith in something which just might not work out. Putting faith in tech companies is yet another example of consumerist thought patterns influencing the campaign to tackle climate change. It would be great if CCS did become deployable on a wide scale, but I would argue that it is too risky to replace action with hope, especially at this late stage in the climate change ‘game’. After all, it is usually very difficult to predict just how even the near future will turn out.

In conclusion, there is undeniably some value in carbon offsetting schemes – after all, they (generally) seek to reduce the concentration of GHGs in the in atmosphere, thereby alleviating the effects of climate change to some extent. However, it is important that the purchase of carbon offsets does not have the sole aim of removing guilt. The world will not be saved by guilty consumers spending more money to save their souls. Yes, offset those emissions that you couldn’t avoid making, but don’t feel too pleased with yourself. But at the same time, don’t feel too guilty, because there are others far more in the blame.

Maybe the terms offsetting and negation should be replaced with subtraction: the actions of the projects mentioned above needn’t only be used to counterbalance a polluting action, but would also benefit from support from those of clear conscience.


References not linked above

[1] A history of the world in seven cheap things – Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel.

Header image found here

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