Are carbon offsets really as effective as advocates claim?

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>Are carbon offsets really as effective as advocates claim?

More than 170 major companies have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, with many counting on carbon offsets and carbon trading programs to help them reach that goal. But critics say offsets are not nearly enough to address the danger to the planet from continually rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Living on EarthNovember 3, 2021 · 3:00 PM EDT

This April 2, 2010 file photo shows a Tesoro Corp. refinery, including a gas flare flame that is part of normal plant operations, in Anacortes, Wash. In the 2016 election, voters in Washington state rejected an initiative that would have taxed carbon emissions from fossil fuels such as coal and gasoline.

Ted S. Warren/ AP/File

As nations meet at the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, more than 170 companies are pledging to become carbon neutral by 2050. But critics say these offsets are often hard to verify and can give these companies license to continue to pollute.

Corporations, including Amazon, Shell, and General Motors, are counting on carbon offsets to help meet their climate commitments. The companies say offsets help them protect the climate, even as they continue to emit greenhouse gases, because they are paying to reduce emissions elsewhere.

Carbon trading programs with hard caps, established years ago, have had some success, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast United States, which achieved a 35% reduction of emissions from power companies over the last 12 years.

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But, like other critics of such plans, Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Green Peace International, says net-zero pledges and offsets cannot replace the reductions and fossil fuel phase-outs needed to address the climate emergency.

“[R]ight now, in the year 2021, when we need to [be] halving global emissions by 2030…there is no time for companies or countries to use offsets because offsets are really just an accounting trick."

Jennifer Morgan, executive director, Green Peace International

“[R]ight now, in the year 2021, when we need to [be] halving global emissions by 2030…there is no time for companies or countries to use offsets because offsets are really just an accounting trick,” Morgan maintains.

When a company like Shell pledges to reduce its emissions to net-zero by 2050, it wants to do so by continuing to increase its sale of natural gas while planting a large number of trees that, in theory, would absorb the carbon from drilling for gas.

“That doesn't add up,” Morgan says. “It allows those who should be reducing emissions at [their] source, [by] shifting their business models, to go and plant trees somewhere? Sorry. Especially in times when land-grabbing is huge, indigenous rights violations are massive and biodiversity loss is big — no time for that.”

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Morgan says there is a big difference between carbon that’s been stored underground for millions of years, and new carbon that gets stored in trees. For starters, it’s just much less certain that newly-absorbed carbon is going to stay there.

“If it's underground, it's underground,” she contends. “If it goes into a tree, [that tree] could burn down, it could get cut down. Similarly, when you release those emissions from underground, from coal or oil, those emissions are out in the atmosphere. It takes a long time for some trees to grow.”

Lots of evidence from many studies show that this type of scheme does not work on a scale sufficient to address the problem, Morgan suggests. “So, I'm not sure why we're doing it again now,” she says, “except that I think oil companies maybe feel a bit of pressure and are looking for an out, instead of having to change what they need to do.”

Morgan also expresses skepticism about a carbon tax, which many activists and politicians believe could be effective.

“If carbon taxes and pricing carbon were so effective right now, then we would have seen quite a lot more of emission reductions around the world. It’s really not discernible.”

Jennifer Morgan, executive director, Green Peace International

“If carbon taxes and pricing carbon were so effective right now, then we would have seen quite a lot more of emission reductions around the world,” she says. “It's really not discernible. And also, I think it's really important to bring in the social dimensions here, because if a company [has] to pay more because there's a carbon tax or there's a carbon price, where does that higher cost get transferred to? Oftentimes, it will get transferred to a consumer, and that consumer probably doesn't have as much money as that corporation has to deal with this.”

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The level of carbon pricing that scientists say is necessary to really drive emissions down is quite high, so it must be coupled with measures that protect consumers or else the tax ends up penalizing the wrong entity or person. “I think there's no climate justice without social justice,” Morgan says.

Besides, she adds, some of the public statements by large carbon emitters are disingenuous. “Exxon recently said in a investigative journalism [report], ‘Yeah, we'll support a carbon tax because we know it's never going to happen.’ And also, they know that the social unrest will happen unless you really think of those two things together.”

Morgan believes humanity is facing a “backs-to-the-wall” moment because so little has been done to address the climate problem, even though politicians have known about it for decades.

“Think about what's just happened in the previous months and the suffering that's happened to people [due to] extreme climate events all around the world. And developed countries are now feeling what developing countries have been feeling for years.”

Jennifer Morgan, executive director, Green Peace International

“The first scientific study I know about was put on Lyndon B. Johnson's desk a long time ago,” she points out. “There's been a lot of denial out there by fossil fuel interests to slow things down to the point that we are now. Think about what's just happened in the previous months and the suffering that's happened to people [due to] extreme climate events all around the world. And developed countries are now feeling what developing countries have been feeling for years.”

“So, it's serious, it’s scary serious,” Morgan warns. “That's why all of the movements and the youth and the people who get it and are engaging — they get it, they know what their future could look like if we don't turn this around now.”

This article is written by Adam Wernick, based on an interview that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

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