Carbon Offsets: More Harm Than Good?

From Coldplay to Leonardo diCaprio to Al Gore, influential environmentalists are increasingly modeling green behavior by neutralizing their carbon emissions through carbon offsets. Briefly, offsets are based on the notion that consumers can balance out carbon intensive activities, like travel, by contributing to projects that reduce greenhouse gases. Between 2005 and 2007 the market for carbon offsets grew 175%, reaching $110 million (Faris 2007). But just as buying indulgences in the Middle Ages never really erased your sins, carbon offsets rarely counteract your carbon use. Moreover, in some cases, carbon offset projects actually hurt local people. Many experts now believe that well-intentioned consumers are not just wasting their money on offsets, but that purchasing them actually does more harm than good.

How it Works

Suppose you buy airplane tickets for your family’s summer vacation on a website like Travelocity, Orbitz or Expedia. Somewhere in the process of taking your credit card information, the website will ask whether you would like to offset your trip’s carbon emissions for a nominal fee (e.g., a roundtrip flight from NYC to San Francisco = 5,142 miles = 2,455 lbs CO2 = $17.85). Or, you can offset your car rental, hotel stay and flight (a seven day cross-country trip can be offset for $5.44/day/person). You can also offset your wedding, and, if you’re feeling guilty on a daily basis, you can offset energy usage in your home, or your dorm room.

At this point, your original travel search engine will have linked you to a carbon offset company. These for-profit organizations act as brokers, channeling consumer contributions to projects that either replace atmospheric carbon (i.e., by planting trees) or promote renewable energy. Sounds promising, but is it really so easy to “zero-out” the carbon that leads global warming? The answer, unfortunately, is no.

The Trouble with Trees

Take, for example, carbon sequestration programs, which account for approximately 20% of the carbon offset market. Based on the idea that trees absorb carbon, these programs sponsor the planting of large forests designed to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For over a decade, governments and non-profit foundations in the developing world have been offering large sums of money to developing countries in exchange for tree plantations, also known as “carbon sinks”.

However scientists point out that there is a major difference between the kind of carbon emitted from the burning of fossil fuels and the kind of carbon stored by trees. “Carbon emissions from burned oil, gas or coal cannot be considered as equal to the same amount of biological carbon in a tree,” write scientists at the Forests and the European Union Resource Network (FERN 2005). Whereas in nature, carbon moves freely between forests, oceans and air, the fossil carbon pool is inert. Once out of the ground and into the air via cars, coal extraction, etc., fossil carbon joins the active carbon pool. It will not return to the fossil carbon pool for millennia. So, the carbon absorbed by trees does not zero out the carbon emitted by airplanes.

Even if the carbon were equivalent, trees are not necessarily reliable carbon storehouses. First, scientists point out that when trees burn, rot, or are chopped down, they release any carbon they have stored (Kill 2003). Second, according to ecologist Ram Oren, principal investigator on Duke University’s ongoing Free Air Carbon Enrichment project, if trees do not receive enough water or nutrients, any extra carbon they store very quickly goes back into the atmosphere (Cropping 2007). For instance, in 2002, the band Coldplay announced it would offset the environmental impact caused by the release of its second album by planting 10,000 mango trees in southern India. More precisely, Coldplay worked with CarbonNeutral, an offset company, which in turn contracted with Women for Sustainable Development, an NGO. Eventually funds went to local farmers who were supposed to plant and care for the trees. However, four years after the album’s release, many of the trees had died – a drought dried the soil, and many villagers never received funding to help them maintain their trees (Dhillon and Harnden 2006).

Carbon Offsets and Human Rights Violations

The Coldplay/Carbon Neutral project left behind more than just dead mango trees. Indian villagers, who are economically marginalized to begin with, invested time and energy that could have been directed at other, more secure income-generating projects. In fact, one of the biggest problems with Carbon offset schemes, particularly forests, is their lack of attention to the lives of local people. Frequently, carbon sinks displace local populations, generating poverty, inequality, and food and water scarcity. They also drastically reduce biological diversity. In turn, the erosion of resources at every level exacerbates local conflicts (McAfee 2003). Even more seriously, some carbon offset tree plantations have become an excuse for human rights violations.

One well-known case exemplifies the violence created by offset forests. In the early 1990s, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Face Foundation, a nonprofit corporation established by Dutch power companies, launched an initiative to plant scores of trees in Mount Elgon National Park. In order to implement the project, the Ugandan government evicted thousands of local farmers. Most have been fighting to regain their land ever since.

Two years ago, after a new government came into power, the courts granted an injunction in the farmers’ favor. Almost immediately, they cut down carbon-sink trees and planted maize and other vegetables instead. In response, the paramilitary Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) began beating and shooting the farmers. Now, the perimeter of Mount Elgon is tantamount to a war zone (Faris 2007; Smith 2007; Zarembo 2007).

The Ugandan case is not the only example of violence associated with carbon offset plantations. There have been other reports in Central America, Africa and India. In general, clearing vast areas of land amid people without economic resources is always problematic.

Alternatives to Arbors

Some carbon offset companies try to steer clear of those problems by funding the production of energy efficient light bulbs, solar panels, or other alternative energy sources. Yet even these projects are rife with uncertainty. For instance, the LA Times reported on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania that received funding from Native Energy, a popular offset broker. The farm had won an alternative energy grant from the US Department of Agriculture to capture methane and burn it to generate electricity. A little more than a year before construction began Native Energy signed a deal promising to pay the farmer for 29,000 tons of carbon dioxide reductions. The money did not directly fund construction – in fact, in the Times article, one member of the farmer’s family refers to the offset deal as a “free bonus” (Zarembo 2007). (Subsequent to the article’s publication, the farm owner wrote a letter to the Times: as did Native Energy ).

In another example, Native Energy paid $36,000 to the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, a power utility for dozens of remote Eskimo communities in Western Alaska. The cooperative had just received $2.8 million in federal funding for a $3.1-million wind turbine project. In exchange for its contribution (roughly 1% of the total project costs) Native Energy received 25 years of carbon dioxide reductions, or 100% of the project’s carbon reductions. Here, consumer offset fees actually bought little except the ability for Native Energy to sell more offsets.

Examples like these have inspired a lot of buzz about ensuring ‘additionality’, or verifying that offset funding generates genuine and unique carbon reductions. Most offset companies now advertise that their projects’ additionality is certified by “third party” experts. But critics point out that certifiers, themselves, are often consultants with their own stake in endorsing a project’s success.

More generally, determining criteria for additionality can be tricky business. Some projects might be complete without offset funding, but the extra cushion it provides ensures their sustainability. Whether that constitutes additionality is open to interpretation. For instance, environmental watchdog group Clean Air Cool Planet published its own “Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers” in 2007. Native Energy ranked among the top eight providers, with especially high marks for additionality, despite the questionable examples mentioned above.

The problem is that almost every aspect of the carbon offset market is subjective and unfettered. This past January, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it will begin to take a closer look at the “booming, unregulated ‘carbon offset’ market” (Joyce 2008). But, in the meantime, offset companies are free to charge with the market will bear, and economists predict that the industry will grow by $40 billion by the year 2010 (Faris 2007).

The Real Danger

For that $40 billion, consumers receive the false notion that they are helping to stem global warming. But this is idea is not merely a little white lie, or some benign snake oil. Rather, it is a poisonous illusion. As long as we think that we can compensate for our consumption with a little extra cash, we come no closer to — and in fact prevent — the kinds of change needed to fend off global warming. As Kevin Anderson, a scientist with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research put it, “Offsetting is a dangerous delaying technique because it helps us avoid tackling the task [of dealing with climate change]… It helps us sleep well at night when we shouldn’t sleep well at night” (as quoted in Smith 2007).

Shortcuts are not the Answer

Every carbon offset company’s website urges consumers to change their consumptive behaviors in addition to buying offsets. In some cases that wording is more visible than others. But even carbon offset companies recognize that in the end, consumers must to more than “zero out” their Hummer in order to stem, and eventually adapt, to global warming.

Going a step further, consumers could stop sending their hard-earned cash to offset companies in the first place. Instead, they might sink it into renewable resources, and energy efficient and verifiably “green” goods and services. Once consumer demand for such products increases, they will become more affordable to low and middle income people.

Better still, eco-conscious consumers can keep their money in their pockets and find innovative ways to reuse and recycle things that they already have. In terms of air travel, we might hope that more business meetings and conferences will be held online, that flying becomes a once yearly treat for families, and that those families will recognize the environmental costs of their flights and tread lightly on the places they visit.

Pressuring our elected leaders is also critical. For example, while the FTC fusses over regulating the carbon market, other governmental agencies could be more effectively regulating and policing greenhouse gas emissions from industries, including the construction industry. Citizens might also pressure their leaders to channel more resources into preparing people for climate change, especially those most vulnerable. For, the problems with carbon offsets are economic or environmental. Rather, scores of human beings are already hurt by the lawless new carbon market and the kinds of climate change we are currently seeing.

To conclude, across the globe, marginalized people are facing, or will face the ultimate double whammy. Whammy 1 is happening right now, as local people lose their livelihoods either to industries and corporations, to “coercive conservation” schemes such as carbon sink forests, or to more frequent and intense fire, droughts and floods. In addition to their livelihoods, marginalized peoples are losing their lives as they are first to die or be injured in heat waves, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.. Whammy number 2 comes a few years down the line, when global warming has further raised our atmospheric temperatures and our sea levels, intensifying the storms, droughts and floods that inevitably hit certain people harder than others.

MELISSA CHECKER is an assistant professor of Urban Studies at City University of New York, Queens College.  She is the author of Polluted Promises: Environmental Racism and the Search for Justice in a Southern Town (NYU Press, 2005). In addition to a number of articles on the subject of environmental justice, she also co-edited Local Actions: Cultural Activism, Power and Public Life (Columbia University Press, 2004).


Links for Carbon Offsets

Bad for the South, bad for the North, and bad for the climate
October 2006

The Carbon Neutral Myth 2006 Transnational Institute Kevin Smith published by Carbon Trade Watch The Corner House.

2003 Graduation Address: No Ecology Without Equity; No Equity Without Ecology. Watson
International Environmental Fellows Program, Brown University. Providence RI, June.

Carbon offsetting schemes not so green
19/08/2007 | By Jasper Copping

Carbon Offsets: Government Warns of Fraud Risk
by Christopher Joyce For All Things Considered, National Public Radio, January 3, 2008

Clean Air, Cool Planet


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