The false security of offsetting

If you really want to know whether the human race is taming the climate monster, ignore rooftop panels installed, trees planted, or new laws passed. All you need to know is the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Before humans started using fossil fuels, the maximum CO2 level was 278 parts per million. When continuous air sampling began in Hawaii in 1958 it was up by 13 percent. Now it’s 424 ppm, or 52 per cent above that ancient baseline.

Steepening global CO2 curves are all the evidence we need that whatever we’re doing is not working. A key reason has to be a misplaced faith in carbon offsetting.

Offsetting involves paying someone else to take responsibility for our emissions by buying an equal amount of carbon removal, sequestration or avoidance. The money goes into things like renewable energy, more energy-efficient buildings, better farming or landfill – or most commonly, planting or conserving trees.

Governments and people in the world’s richer countries rely heavily on offsetting so they can continue using fossil carbon for industrial, home and transport energy. Airline offsets, for example, are designed to reassure politicians, business people and you and me that we can fly the world without feeling guilty. But all is not as it seems.

If offsets are to mean anything they must meet imperatives like “additionality”, by which they cut carbon emissions more than would have happened without them. And they must be permanent. For instance, if trees don’t live their natural lives the process has failed. But offsets make life easier for you and me, and for governments and businesses, so they’re in high demand. Therein lies a world of deceit. 

Offsets allow polluters to claim they’re carbon neutral while maintaining or even increasing their emissions. Under the federal government’s “safeguard mechanism”, Australia’s fossil fuel industries buy offsets because it’s much cheaper and easier than switching to clean technology. 

The same applies to business generally. In the Australian Financial Review last month, Hannah Wootton described the interplay of competing interests in the lucrative business of helping businesses become carbon-neutral. 

“The Chinese walls at the big four consulting firms are proving paper thin, and it’s not just Treasury feeling PwC-esque pain,” Wootton wrote. She described how the consultancy giant EY helped the Climate Change Authority (CCA) determine that US-based Verra and Gold Standard were the world’s best offset providers – without revealing that it was working with Verra on the side.

This sort of critical ambiguity, where flaws are hidden to avoid reputational harm, extends to government. In Tasmania it has taken the form of wholesale denial: claiming national or even global leadership when our emissions have remained stubbornly high, as Richard Eccleston pointed out in the Hobart Mercury on Saturday.

The national story is equally problematic. In March 2022 the former chair of the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee, ANU law professor Andrew Macintosh, said the Morrison government’s Emissions Reduction Fund was “a rort”.

“People didn’t want to admit the mistakes that they made, and they sought to bury what we had found. There’s a lot of denial, there’s a lot of money at stake, and there’s also an incredibly politically charged space,” he said. “This is little more than a wealth transfer. People can think about it as welfare payments for the undeserving.”

Labor’s plan to cut emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 will collapse without carbon credits. Compelled to act on Macintosh’s claims, climate minister Chris Bowen set up a review, under CCA auspices, led by former chief scientist Ian Chubb. It found flaws existed but the scheme was essentially sound.

In an academic paper, Macintosh and other researchers called the finding “unsubstantiated and incomplete”, concluding that without more rigorous administration the whole fabric of Australia’s offsetting industry would fail.

Gucci and Delta Airlines are among companies that have recently stepped back from their sustainability claims. A few weeks ago the long-serving CEO of the world’s biggest carbon credits certifier Verra announced his retirement after strenuously denying multiple claims that his company had undermined climate commitments by approving worthless offsets. 

Actions on which offsetting is based can be valuable. Planting trees, more sustainable farming, better waste practices and using energy more efficiently are all good things to do. The problem lies in assuming that they neutralise emissions when they don’t.

“Net-zero by 2050” (or earlier) has become the catchcry in both government and business for climate-ready policy and practice. But “net” – carbon neutrality – is not enough. The CO2 graphs say it all: we must aim for full zero, full-stop.

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