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Carbon offsets can do more environmental harm than good

When was the last time you booked a flight? That extra A$1 in the final stages of booking may seem a small price to pay for offsetting the carbon emissions you generate travelling by air. But globally…

While QANTAS offsets go to protecting forests, other carbon offsets can do more harm than good. Claudio Jofré Larenas/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

When was the last time you booked a flight? That extra A$1 in the final stages of booking may seem a small price to pay for offsetting the carbon emissions you generate travelling by air. But globally and across consumer companies, offsets are not only green-washing, but can do more harm than good.

Many consumer companies, from airlines to electricity companies to car dealerships and even some wedding and funeral homes, give their customers the opportunity to “neutralise” the environmental impacts of their products through carbon offsetting.

Offsets give the consumer the impression that their consumption has no negative net effect on the environment, and allows companies to gain green credentials. But in reality, the scale of change that can be achieved by voluntary individual offset schemes is entirely disproportionate to the scale of the problem of global warming.

Offsetting responsibilities

For a start, very few customers elect to pay the extra sum to offset their emissions, about 5% in the case of airline passengers.

Yet providing carbon offsetting options has public relations value for companies, allowing them to gain green legitimisation without having to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This form of elective carbon offsetting shifts the responsibility for greenhouse gas reductions onto individuals and away from institutions, corporations and governments, whose actions can make a more significant difference.

While we don’t know exactly where airline offset money goes, carbon offset money is mainly spent on investments in renewable energy, efficient energy projects, methane capture, and biosequestration projects that absorb CO2, such as tree plantations. In 2012, 34% of the global voluntary offset market was spent on renewable energy projects and 32% on biosequestration.

Many of these offsets are of dubious value in terms of genuine greenhouse gas reductions. Planting trees as offsets is particularly problematic.

The problems with plantations

Tree plantations are not always good for the environment. They suck up much of the water in an area, increase erosion and compaction of the soil, reduce soil fertility and increase the risk of fire.

A Blue Gum plantation in Gippsland, Victoria Tamara Hall/ Private contributor

The trees are planted in rows of the same age and species, requiring heavy use of agrichemicals including fertilisers, chemical weeders and herbicides that pollute the environment and kill native animals. Because plantations create monocultures, they do not provide the variations of form and structure found in a forest.

There are also problems when it comes to working out the quantity of trees needed to offset one tonne of carbon. According to the US government figures, 25 tree seedling growing for ten years would offset 1 tonne of carbon dioxide. However, even the best methodologies for calculating this are inaccurate. The amount of carbon dioxide a growing tree will absorb varies depending on tree species, soil type, amount of soil litter and below-ground biomass.

Plantations aren’t the only concern. The international Voluntary Gold Standard for offsets favours renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects over tree plantations or methane capture. However, it is difficult to regulate or assess the effectiveness of these projects.

Offshoring offsets

Qantas offset schemes, through offsetting companies, include native forest protection in Tasmania, wind power in China, more efficient wood stoves in Cambodia, and replacing fossil fuels with biomass for powering cement plants in Thailand. All these projects meet the Australian Government National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS), as do Virgin Australia’s. However it is difficult to say whether this is a sound use of offset money.

How can we be sure that more efficient wood stoves would not have been purchased anyway, that the wind power plants in China would not have been built, or that the forest in Tasmania would have been logged without Qantas paying for its protection?

Weld Valley, Tasmania. QANTAS has contributed some money from offset payments to protect Tasmanian forests Ta Ann Truths/Flickr, CC BY

Offsets that are located in countries that have already committed to greenhouse gas reduction targets are likely to be double counted, first as an offset and second as a reduction in the total national greenhouse gas inventory, a reduction that would have had to happen anyway.

Buying up cheap offsets in developing nations at US$3.50 per tonne in 2013 is a short-term solution that only postpones the necessary phasing out of fossil-fuel dependence in wealthy nations, at a time when such action is becoming urgent. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions in poor countries is not enough to prevent further global warming. We should be giving first priority to becoming less dependent on fossil fuels in Australia through changing the way we generate electricity and making manufacturing less energy intensive, as well as promoting alternatives to automobile travel and truck freight.

Carbon offsets are a greenwashing mechanism that enables individuals to buy themselves green credentials without actually changing their consumption habits, and nations to avoid the more difficult structural and regulatory change necessary to prevent further global warming.

Join the conversation

33 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Poynter

    Forester

    An interesting article, but as a forester I strongly disagree with the comments suggesting that tree plantations are bad for the environment. The arguements used are in some cases old wives tales (such as plantations supposedly harming the fertility of soils), but are mostly presuming a situation where plantations are replacing native forests.

    This may be the case in developing countries, but hasn't been the case in a significant sense for a long time in Australia - the plantation picture shows…

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      "....They may also be monocultures, but surely a monoculture of trees has a greater environmental value than a monoculture of grass...."

      Why? I am not saying they aren't, but a statement like this reqires evidence and analysis. Trees and grasses are home to entirely different species - but one is not necessarily of more environmental value than the other. I would suggest this depends entirely upon where it is and what else is around.

      As the author said, tree plantations are not always good for the environment. That means that sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. But the, that is just a statement of the obvious really.

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    2. harry oblong

      tree surgeon

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      the 1080 used kill the native wildlife and the clearing of native forest to allow for plantations is hardly environmentally sound practice...

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    3. Tom Fairman

      PhD Student at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      I agree, Mark - in my experience in observing offset plantations, one issue of greater concern is the success and viability of the plantation, rather than those listed in the article (in Australia, that is). I've (sadly) seen a few carbon plantations that could do with a few more trees and shrubs to make up for the patchiness.

      Furthermore, the author doesn't make mention that many carbon offset plantations in Australia are actually required to be biodiverse - and I also second that where plantations are established on cleared farmland, a monoculture of trees like blue gum can provide habitat connectivity that many have long established grasslands cannot.

      Anyway, good article, but the tree section was a little disappointing.

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    4. catherine mcdonald

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark this is simply not so.
      1) The Strezleckis are full of plantation timber - cleared native forest - not ex farm land and constantly being expanded further into native forests. (Euphemism is "previously logged")
      2) Plantation timber in the Strezleckis is clear-felled - leaving top soil exposed and "blowing in the wind", - my family live next door - we can watch it happening.
      3) Preferred method of "wood waste" removal is to burn - increasing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere - not to mention…

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    5. Tom Fairman

      PhD Student at University of Melbourne

      In reply to catherine mcdonald

      I think the developments in the plantation estate in Western Victoria is far more relevant to the "plantations as carbon offsets" discussion than what is going on the in the Strzeleckis - plantations for timber production in managed in an entirely different manner.

      I'm just jumping in now before this devolves into a "native forest logging" debate when it's clearly irrelevant to the topic of the article.

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    6. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to catherine mcdonald

      Catherine

      As I said in my earlier comment, virtually all plantation expansion in recent times has been on cleared farmland, and does not involve replacing a native forest.

      The Strezlecki plantations were established in the 1960s and were also mostly established on failed farms that had been previously cleared, although they may have partly regenerated to forest/ scrub prior to plantation establishment.

      Your comment about them being expanded into native forests is a reference I believe to…

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    7. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Well I'm not so sure most plantations are strictly monocultures. They almost always have a component of native flora in the ground layer, and mid-storey, and frequently the planted species is not 100% successful so we get patches of wattle or other native species growing up, and, large old natural trees are usually protected during establishment. Also protected are areas along drainage lines that frequently are planted to local species. And that is in plantations with a commercial focus. Look…

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    8. Mike Jubow

      Forestry nurseryman at Nunyara Wholesale , Forestry consultants, seedling suppliers.

      In reply to harry oblong

      It is news to me that foresters use 1080. They have no need to . What an absurd accusation.

      I don't know about other states, but here in Queensland there are tree clearing laws and for decades now, native tree clearing to make way for forestry plantations is strictly prohibited.

      Where do get this stuff from?

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    9. catherine mcdonald

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark
      I'm afraid you are misinformed. Most plantations in the Strezis are exState Forest not ex farm land. Burning slash is common place - just had a run in with Hancock about this. AFC and like accreditation doesn't seem to be worth much the run off, erosion are evident, the alteration to water flows, the destruction of small streams, cutting on steep slopes and so on. I am in favour of timber industry but current standards are just pathetic and as someone who actually witnesses first hand what is going on, I just don't believe "the official line".

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  2. John Newlands

    tree changer

    I agree completely. Carbon offsets appear to be largely misconceived or an invitation to exaggerate. The notorious Clean Development Mechanism or CDM is based on the dodgy notion of emitting less than some presumed entitlement. Increase the entitlement then you increase the credit like a Magic Pudding. For example Chinese refrigerant gas manufacturers took over $550m from the World Bank to change their formula to a more benign chemical. A simple prohibition would have gotten the same result. Yet…

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  3. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    A hands-on environmental manager I greatly respect used to like the heuristic: 'Eliminate the damage if you can; offset it if you can't.'

    It makes sense. In the hands of a sincere and honest operator who really works hard to do the first half of the formula and only falls back on the second half when s/he has really run out of practical options, it's not a bad guide.

    But lazily going to offsets when there are alternatives is damaging. And the false sense of having solved the problem that CAN come from offsetting is also a worry (motivational valency and stuff like that).

    So, even if we COULD guarantee genuine, quality offsetting (e.g. the aditionality and endurance problems solved) it's never more than a poor second best - and the fear is that it becomes a crutch we never learn to walk without.

    It's a shame, because the idea of offsetting what you can't realistically prevent is attractive.

    Thanks for a very sober and sobering article.

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  4. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Brilliant Article, thanks for sharing with us

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  5. Alex Serpo

    Garbologist

    Thank god someone finally wrote this article. I've been banging on for years about how woeful carbon offsets are.

    Luckily, now that so many are plantation based, when they finally get turned into toilet paper I can wipe my ass with carbon offsets, which is what I have always wanted to do.

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  6. Mark Graham

    Ecologist

    Thanks for the article Sharon.

    Reminds me of a troubling example of offsetting I experienced and documented a few years ago. I was doing vegetation surveys on the Liverpool Plains, one of the most heavily cleared landscapes in Australia. It supports some of the rarest native grassland communities in Australia, all are classified as Endangered Ecological Communities.

    In this instant I was surveying a highly significant (diverse and large) remnant of native grassland on a large cereal cropping…

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    1. Georgina Byrne
      Georgina Byrne is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer at Farming

      In reply to Mark Graham

      Another great article and informed series of responses, which provide lots of information not otherwise available to the average punter, so thanks for that to all concerned. The temptation to cut me own throat continues, however. The big question is how to address the mountain of steaming bovine excrement under which all average punters now find themselves. Even the good old ABC seems to be unable to cut through and inform Joe and Joan Public, when they avert their eyes for a second from the latest child porn scandal, groin strained sportsperson or utterly appalling "budget" decision. Meanwhile here on our farm both the wildlife and the not so wildlife struggles to keep its normal behaviours going, in the face of increasingly unseasonal seasons....sigh...

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    2. Mark Duffett
      Mark Duffett is a Friend of The Conversation.

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Graham

      Not only that, replacing grassland with forest cover can actually result in greater net global warming, or only marginal climate benefit, at least outside the tropics. This is due to increased solar radiation absorption (i.e. lower albedo) counteracting carbon dioxide sequestration effects.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/16/opinion/16caldeira.html?_r=0
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1871823/
      http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/3/4/044006

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  7. Rob Blakers

    Photographer

    Interested to know where carbon offsets protect native forest in Tasmania. Most certainly not in the Weld Valley, depicted in the second photograph, which is public forest now protected as World Heritage as part of he Tasmanian Forests Agreement.

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    1. Jeremy Dore

      Project Development and Legal at Aboriginal Carbon Fund

      In reply to Rob Blakers

      Thanks for a thoughtful article challenging the philosophy of carbon offsets. It is challenging!
      But consider this: across the north of Australia there are are currently 11 savanna burning projects working to reduce the massive late season fires by initiating a patchwork of cool burns in the early dry season. 7 of the projects are Indigenous controlled or have Indigenous participation. The projects provide jobs in remote locations where opportunities are few. There is reduction in fire haze. The…

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  8. Bradley Nolan

    logged in via Facebook

    I can agree with the majority of comments to the article, and many of the points raised, but feel the author's view may well be "throwing the baby away with the bathwater". environmental plantings offer more to the environment that purely carbon sequestration. It is my understanding that Qantas utilise GreenFleet for their planting activities (under the voluntary carbon market) and they are actively undertaking bio-diverse plantings that utilise upwards of 20-25 locally endemic species and high…

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  9. David Osmond
    David Osmond is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Wind Engineer

    For anyone interested in offsetting their carbon emissions using renewable energy, a great way is via C3.

    It's the cheapest place for individuals to purchase renewable energy certificates that I'm aware of. It's tax deductible, you can choose a wind farm that you'd like to purchase the certificates from, and you're not letting a big generation company or airline skim some profits from your purchase (ACTEW AGL charge me $75 per certificate, compared to $43-$44 here).
    Plus a fraction of your sale gets donated to a local charity or environmental group of your choice.

    https://www.climatechest.org.au/host/see-change

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  10. Mike Jubow

    Forestry nurseryman at Nunyara Wholesale , Forestry consultants, seedling suppliers.

    "The trees are planted in rows of the same age and species, requiring heavy use of agrichemicals including fertilisers, chemical weeders and herbicides that pollute the environment and kill native animals".

    "Heavy use of agrochemicals", What evidence do you have of that? There is less use of herbicides than with general agriculture per hectare and extremely rare use of insecticides. I have been involved in forestry for the last 35 years and have only once seen an insecticide used and that was for…

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    1. Mark Graham

      Ecologist

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      Until recently in many Dunns White Gum (Eucalyptus dunnii) plantations in northern NSW, Rogor (Dimethoate) has been used to control psyllid outbreaks. Despite the repeated use of this toxin, many of these plantations have completely failed.

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    2. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Mark Graham

      Hi Mark,
      I was around the north coast when these plantations were being established, if they are the ones I am thinking of, Bob Carr and the State Labor Govt had a deadline to establish a certain number of hectares of euc plantation. I know foresters who were not happy with what sp was being planted where, but the political imperative from the top was "get x000 hectares in the ground this financial year, or else!", despite the protestations that the wrong species were being planted and failure was…

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    3. Mike Jubow

      Forestry nurseryman at Nunyara Wholesale , Forestry consultants, seedling suppliers.

      In reply to Murray Webster

      G'day Murray. In Qld we saw similar situations, " I know foresters who were not happy with what sp was being planted where", and local knowledge of foresters and farmers who grew woodlots or maintained native forests were ignoredby those who thought they knew better.

      Both the Qld DPI Forestry service and the MIS companies made the same mistake of not matching the species with the soil and local conditions. Trees that should have been planted in the high hinterland, high rainfall belt were planted…

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    4. Mike Jubow

      Forestry nurseryman at Nunyara Wholesale , Forestry consultants, seedling suppliers.

      In reply to Mark Graham

      Mark, the likelyhood is that Dunns White Gums were totally unsuited to the soils and climate and was the most likely the cause of the failure. Trees that are heavilly attacked by insects are often those which are stressed for water, climate or are in the wrong soil types. The spraying of dimethoate was the last resort of a desperate and poor forestry manager and, I might add, spraying insecticides is not at all common to the industry.

      It is a shame, as it gives the industry an undeserved bad name.

      "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones", Shakespear.

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  11. Scott Favacho

    Environmental Consultant

    Interesting article but offsetting does have its place.

    It should come after considering efficiency, fuel substitution, process re-engineering and purchasing green energy.

    Until such time as the world uses non-renewable energy in a sustainable fashion, there will always be a place for offsetting emissions.

    There are a variety of offsets available and companies/people that purchase and retire these should at least know a little about the project and how offsets are verified and allocated.

    There…

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  12. James Bentley

    Environmental Markets Manager

    This article's title would be better retitled to "offset article does more harm than good."

    Some valid questions are raised by this article, however, it is disappointingly negative, fails to acknowledge the adaptability of the offset market and, on that matter, provides no useful guidance on how the offset market might be improved.

    The current low market price for offsets reflects a market that pushed ahead of demand. Many entrepreneurial investors have done their dough. Until demand catches…

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  13. Justin Foster

    logged in via Twitter

    I agree that there needs to be "difficult structural and regulatory change necessary to prevent further global warming" (although I think term 'climate change'
    better represents the problem). I am also wary of corporations ‘green washing’, However, the remainder of this 'article' is somewhat misleading and poorly researched. Let me first make the point that the only way to reduce global carbon emissions is to put a price on it - there are a number of effective mechanisms in place to facilitate this…

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  14. Rachel Dawson

    ecologist

    The present clearing in Leard State Forest by Whitehaven Coal for the new open cut Maules Creek coal mine near Boggabri, NSW is a stark example of how the use of offsets can go horribly wrong. Whitehaven have bought biodiversity offsets in the nearby ranges, but much of these offsets have been falsely documented and are not the endangered White Box Grassy Woodland which is being destroyed. The endangered woodland is one of the last remaining large stands and cannot be replaced. Another reason so many are protesting on site is that new open cut coal mines may turn out to be bad investments as more people join the growing divestment movement against coal. But stranded assets won't bring back the forest.

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  15. Rob Asselman

    Project Manager

    *Firstly, for the sake of transparency I must disclose that I work in the Industry that is being discussed.

    This article is largely incorrect and poorly researched. There are too many holes to pull apart each one-by-one but to say carte-blanche "Carbon offsets are a greenwashing mechanism" is far below the standard of writing expected in The Conversation.

    The Carbon Market is by no-means a silver bullet to tackling the enormous issue of anthropogenic climate change but as there is no such silver-bullet…

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