Greenwashing: why ‘carbon offsetting’ is a lie, and what we need instead

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 venture,

“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.

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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 too – 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 Oceanic 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 zero. 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 demands a ransom for not deforesting it. It’s like a smoker telling you it’s okay that he hasn’t given up yet, because he’s already formulated a plan to rip 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.

About Lucille Thompson

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