Fifteen years ago, as Valentine’s Day approached, a trio of entrepreneurs took to the streets of Britain to sell a brave new idea. Carrying heart-shaped helium balloons and red red roses, they told passers-by about their new business, cheatneutral.com.
“What we do is cheat compensation,” they say, in what became one of YouTube’s first viral videos. “So if you’re in a relationship and one of you is doing something that you probably shouldn’t have done, then you can come to us and pay us some money.” To make up for the infidelity, the company would invest it in a couple that promises to be faithful.
The launch was the subject of widespread and shocked media coverage. The company’s founders were invited on broadcast media around the world to justify this nonsense.
It was, of course, a stunt. Carbon offsetting was, at the time, a relatively new idea. Companies from airlines to energy providers were asking customers to pay a few extra pounds to ‘neutralize’ their emissions. The filmmakers were climate activists, pointing out the profound stupidity of this new capitalist market.
A decade and a half later, however, the scam is back. With global concerns about climate change soaring, the market for carbon offsets – a financial product linked to these fictitious schemes – tripled in size to £1billion last year.
On Friday, my colleagues Martin Williams and Lucas Amin laid out the details of British Gas/Centrica’s shockingly poor offset scheme, under which it offered customers a way to claim to eliminate emissions from their power stations.
But before going into details, let’s think about the general principle. Because basically, the fundamental problem of compensation is an accounting problem. If you pour water into a tub from two different faucets and you’re worried it might overflow, you can’t let one run in exchange for turning off the other. You have to turn them both off and unplug the plug.
There are ultimately two things that regulate the chemistry of our air: what goes in and what goes out. For about 650,000 years, or about twice as long as Homo Sapiens, they were in balance. Climate-altering gases that were emitted by animals, plants, land, and sea were re-inhaled at an equal rate, producing the relatively stable climate that allowed civilizations to emerge.
Over the past 300 years, industrial capitalism has radically altered both sides of the equation. On the one hand, we pump heat-trapping chemicals into the atmosphere – mostly carbon, but others as well – from the lithosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere. On the other hand, we have also reduced the planet’s ability to extract these chemicals from the atmosphere, through deforestation, destruction of wetlands and damage to ocean life.
It is worth dwelling on the latter for a moment, as it is often, but not always, where carbon offset programs focus their attention.
Since the 1700s, approximately 1.5 billion hectares of forest have been cleared worldwide, or almost one-eighth of the world’s landmass. Much of the remaining forest has been degraded to the point that it now emits more carbon than it extracts. During the same period, some 85% of the planet’s wetlands – an equally vital carbon sink – have been drained. And that’s just on earth.
The ocean stores about 20 times more carbon than terrestrial plants, animals and soil, 50 times more than the atmosphere. Phytoplankton suck up CO2 out of thin air, then sink through the twilight zone, either as themselves or into the poop or corpses of the fish that eat them, and down to the deep ocean floor in an effect researchers call “sea snow” because you can literally see bits of carbon falling into the water.
It is, most often, this plankton which, after millions of years, becomes oil and gas.
Sea snow|Photo by NOAA National Ocean Service via Wikimedia Commons
These algae and the marine life that consumes them are responsible for about 40% of the carbon sequestered. But the little mites have a hard time getting the job done. Overfishing, and in particular centuries of whaling, has drastically reduced the biomass of our oceans, which means less carbon is stored in the bodies and shells of sea creatures, and less dark in the deep blue when ‘they die. There is much less fish and whale droppings to fertilize the plankton. Millions of tons that would have been blown from the air to the ocean floor in the days of Moby Dick now remain in the atmosphere, warming the planet.
If we are to return the chemical composition of the atmosphere to that which has allowed complex human societies to develop and thrive, we must both reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to pre-industrial levels – that is- i.e. almost nothing – and to restore our oceans, wetlands and forests to their pre-industrial abundance. If a carbon offset program promises, for example, to plant trees somewhere, then it takes the lack of trees there as a baseline and counts the carbon they sequester as reducing the total footprint of the humanity, sometimes calling it “negative emissions”. But that’s not the right baseline.
If trees could grow there, they would have done so for most of Holocene history – the current geographic epoch. Restoring them does not produce a negative number in your carbon sums. It takes a positive and makes it null. That’s a vital thing to do on its own, but it doesn’t negate the emissions from your huge gas-fired power plants.
But the Centrica carbon “credits” revealed by Martin and Lucas show how much worse carbon “offsetting” has become than planting trees, which is at least sometimes a good thing.
Under a program that Centrica subscribes to, a company has declared ownership of a part of the Amazon that in fact belongs to an indigenous tribe, and is demanding a ransom for not deforesting it. It’s like a smoker telling you that it’s okay that he hasn’t given up yet, because he’s already formulated a plan to tear his chest open and slice a handful of bronchioles in one of his own lungs, and now he won’t. As long as you keep paying them. Plus, it turns out it’s actually someone else’s lung.
Another, which accounts for 44% of Centrica’s offsets, involves the company buying carbon credits from a now-banned scheme involving a company on the shores of the Bohai Sea in eastern China.
Shandong Dongyue Chemical Co Ltd produces chemical refrigerants, using a process that leads to a by-product called Fluoroform – CHF3. If not disposed of properly, it is a greenhouse gas approximately 12,400 times more potent than CO2and governments have agreed to phase it out.
Seeing a business opportunity in the growing carbon credit market, the company gasped. Rather than simply having your CHF3 Correctly, he asked other companies to pay him to do so, selling carbon credits in exchange.
There are two problems with this. The first is that these types of schemes have encouraged companies to produce more CHF3 just so they can get paid to get rid of it safely. In 2011, Shandong Dongyue Chemical Co Ltd was forced to deny it was “gaming the system” after the Bloomberg news agency obtained a highly critical UN report. Xiao Gang Niu, the company’s deputy general manager, insisted that the company was not operating to maximize emission credits.
The second is that Chinese law now requires the company to properly dispose of the gas, and the carbon credit program attached to it was suspended by the UN in 2013. The carbon credits Centrica purchased in November 2021 for “ neutralize” emissions from power stations in the UK are financial products made by a company a decade ago against a hypothetical threat of irresponsible pollution of the atmosphere, in a way that would now be illegal.
Unlike the tree planting example above, the benchmark against which this equates to “negative emissions” is not the present. It’s an imaginary future, even worse, imagined by corporate executives and against which the planet is held to ransom.
These threats are then bundled into financial products and traded on an international market where any real responsibility for the emissions they claim to have avoided evaporates. Carbon-intensive western companies continue to spit fumes into the air but can now point south and say ‘but we paid them not to do something even worse, so that’s it makes it better”.
But it’s not just a matter of math. It is a matter of politics. Carbon offsetting does not exist to reduce concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but to allow people with real power to dissolve responsibility into the general public.
Rather than major state issues for which politicians and corporate leaders should be held accountable by citizens, decarbonization becomes a matter of ticking box choices for consumers. A social problem is individualized away from those with the power to solve it to the gnawing guilt of an already overworked consumer.
The way we’re really going to solve problems like the UK’s reliance on carbon-intensive infrastructure isn’t through a series of customers paying companies to ‘offset’ their emissions in a fraudulent scheme. It is through massive government action.
The UK is addicted to gas because then-Chancellor George Osborne decided in the early 2010s that a new ‘gas dash’ was a sensible ‘bridge’ solution to the UK’s energy needs. country. At the time, environmental activists, and in particular the group “No Dash for Gas”, pointed the finger at the absurdities. It was, it was often said, a bridge to nowhere. In addition, renewable energies were already at that time cheaper than fossil fuels.
If David Cameron’s government had gotten into wind, solar and tidal power a decade ago, UK electricity providers wouldn’t have needed to sell indulgences.
Teaser photo credit: Drax power station|Copyright Dave Pickersgill and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons license