The false security of carbon offsets

Last year, not long before stepping down as chief executive of the world’s fifth biggest oil company, Shell, Ben van Beurden told veteran US satirist Jon Stewart that he envisaged the world hitting its “safe” 1.5C warming limit by 2050.

His industry, he said, would then use the second half of the century to “clean up”, including capturing CO2 out of the air and storing it in the ground or in a plant. “There’s a role for governments to play, there’s a role for companies like us to play, and I think the sooner that we as a society get with that idea the more progress we can make.”

A predictable, managed, dignified progression in which society would give fossil fuel companies the respect and space they need to work with government and sort everything out.

The global fossil fuel industry owns technologies potentially invaluable to renewable energy. Its ability to find and extract natural gas, for instance, could be applied to geothermal power. Its offshore platform experience would be invaluable in developing marine wind, and its knowledge of pipelines and gas storage may be critical for hydrogen when it gets going.

But there are two fatal flaws in van Buerden’s vision. One is his timetable: current scientific observations of accelerating change tell us that the “safe” 1.5C threshold is likely to arrive by 2030, 20 years earlier than van Beurden assumes. The other is his industry’s liberal use of what we have come to call offsets.

Contrary to its sales pitch, offsetting achieves a tiny fraction of what is gained by preventing emissions in the first place. It is essentially a diversion, designed to hide monumental policy failure, and climate change minister Chris Bowen is privy to this, as were his Labor and Coalition predecessors over 25 years. 

When the 1997 Kyoto climate meeting was drawing to a close, then-PM John Howard, through his environment minister, Robert Hill, insisted on what became widely known as the Australia clause, allowing rising emissions to be offset by preventing land from being cleared, or “avoided deforestation”.

Others got into the act. Offsetting, “the net in net-zero”, as Bowen puts it, has grown into a global trade in credit certificates supposedly guaranteeing tree planting and other carbon abatement processes. But science has concluded it is making no appreciable difference to rising emissions and global warming. 

Offsets “do have a role to play”, Bowen told the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas last week. He’s right, and it’s to facilitate business-as-usual. While acknowledging the urgency of the situation and the need to penalise pollution, the government’s “safeguard mechanism” legislation is as much about appearances as about real emissions reduction.

As for exploiting new carbon deposits, Bowen said gas would be needed “for many years to come… It would be irresponsible to put some sort of blanket ban on as we are undertaking this massive transition, coming after 10 years of denial and delay, starting in 2022, to get [to] a 2030 target… it’s ambitious, and difficult, and complicated.”

He’s right, but just like all his predecessors, and like political and business leaders across the Western world, he is assuming that thanks to offsetting, there’s wriggle-room where there is none. 

Climate change can only be shifted by a change to the human activity that made it happen in the first place. As long as we burn fossil fuels Earth will go on heating, and that won’t stop until we decide (or failing economies decide for us) that our only recourse is to leave the stuff where nature in its wisdom deposited it. In the ground.

Renewable energy is crying out for the industrial muscle of fossil energy, but this is not going to happen in the few years available without the heavy hand of regulation. Meanwhile, continuing gas and coal extraction is inflicting irreparable harm, not just to the climate but to natural ecosystems.

The federal government and all state jurisdictions, including Tasmania, want a soft landing on climate policy. Hence the ambiguity about the future of fossil fuels, the talk of the net in net-zero, and the epidemic of greenwashing we’re seeing in the carbon offsets market.

But since global warming was identified as real and dangerous decades ago, a soft landing on climate has never been possible. Offsets do nothing but foster a false sense of security.

We hear that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but using offsetting to disguise the truth about emissions is not good and never was. It’s bad, pure and simple.

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