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Is carbon offsetting little more than a bandaid on a much bigger climate problem? 0-style/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

DIY climate action might make us feel good, but it won’t solve the problem

The United Nations, through its Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC), has launched a carbon offsets initiative called Climate Neutral Now. The website says that to “keep our communities healthy and safe we need a climate neutral world”, which requires “action from all of us”.

The UNFCCC argues elsewhere on the site that:

Offsetting, after measuring and reducing, is key for achieving a climate neutral world. Offsetting benefits the whole planet, not just the country in which the emissions are reduced.

We would argue (as have others) that the planet has not and will not notice offsets at all, and that they are akin to indulgences sold by the church centuries ago.

First, though, how does the UNFCCC offset initiative work?

Measure, reduce, offset

The Climate Neutral Now three-step initiative is quite straightforward (unlike offsetting itself).

First, you measure your climate footprint. This is done, according to the site, “to understand your impact on climate change and to be able to identify areas where you can reduce them”. There’s an online calculator to measure your climate footprint.

Second, through the measurement process, you can identify the causes and sources of your emissions, “as well as opportunities to reduce these emissions”. The site refers those seeking to measure emissions to the International Carbon Reduction and Offsetting Alliance or ICROA.

Finally, under the offsets initiative, you can offset what can’t be reduced with UN Certified Emission Reductions. These certified emission reductions are produced through the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), one of three market-based flexibility mechanisms established under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

But the Clean Development Mechanism has problems.

The Clean Development Mechanism

Under the CDM, developed states invest in emissions reduction projects in developing states and gain certified credits. CDM project types include agriculture, biomass energy, CO₂ capture and usage, energy efficiency, reforestation and afforestation.

You can calculate your emissions and buy these certified emission reduction credits for cancellation (that is, taking them out of circulation so that they are no longer usable) on the site.

However, the CDM has several difficulties when it comes to tackling climate change.

For example, it can be argued that offsetting does not reduce emissions but allows developed states and corporations in those states to purchase credits from projects in developing states and avoid domestic action on emissions reductions.

Put another way, CDM projects risk “non-additionality” – that corporations will benefit from projects that don’t actually result in an overall reduction in emissions, or that a project will reduce emissions but that other emissions will increase elsewhere (carbon leakage). It can also be argued that CDM projects have benefited only a small number of developing states (China, for example, and India) through hosting a majority of the CDM projects.

Help me to be good, but not just yet

The UNFCCC has presumably launched this offsets initiative in part to give importance to the role individuals can play in addressing the climate change problem – and offsetting is a form of individual action.

Much has been made of individual action as a means of dealing with the climate change problem, but – again – what you do personally doesn’t on its own make the least bit of difference.

Put another way, the things individuals do in their daily lives – offsets – taken by themselves, have no effect. The planet doesn’t notice. It is collective action that matters, or what billions of people do.

Environmental economist Gernot Wagner argues: “The changes necessary are so large and so profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action.” Instead, what is needed is policy that motivates major industrial sectors to reduce emissions and use resources more efficiently.

Just as the planet won’t notice individual action, it also won’t notice offsetting for the same reason.

The best argument against offsetting has been put by James Hansen (channelling, to some extent, St Augustine):

The public must be firm and unwavering in demanding ‘no offsets’ … [offsets] are like the indulgences that were sold by the church in the Middle Ages. People of means loved indulgences, because they could practise any hanky-panky or worse, then simply purchase an indulgence to avoid punishment for their sins …

And Hansen concludes with this:

Anybody who argues for offsets today is either a sinner who wants to pretend he or she has done adequate penance or a bishop collecting moola.

This argument, of course, extends to corporations, although such entities are increasingly covered under carbon pricing regimes in multiple jurisdictions at the national and state or provincial level.

Focus on the real game

Offsetting is a diversion from the main game: legislated mitigation (price and quantity of emissions reductions) and adaptation. This will be the focus of the climate change talks in Paris later this year.

In terms of mitigation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2013 referred for the first time to a global cumulative carbon budget. The IPCC found that, to hold global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels (the limit agreed by most states as a global warming “safety threshold”), total emissions cannot exceed one trillion tonnes of carbon.

The Trillionth Tonne website continually updates estimates of current total cumulative emissions from fossil fuel use, cement production and land-use change since industrialisation began at about 575 gigatonnes. Based on emission trends, it currently expects the trillionth tonne to be emitted in late November 2038.

It’s hard to see how voluntary individual carbon offsets can put even a dent in this trend.

The UNFCCC website spruiking the virtues of carbon offsetting features testimonials from the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and the actor Edward Norton, who recently starred in the movie Birdman with Michael Keaton. Keaton’s character in the film – the Birdman – seems to think he can fly. The UNFCCC seems to think that offsetting is a key to achieving emissions reductions.

It’s a Birdman-like thought.

David and Rebecca will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 2 and 3pm AEDT on Wednesday, October 28, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

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