Offsets are not a solution

For some time now, I’ve been uneasy about offsetting, but unable to fully articulate why. I suspect this is an unease I share with many other people too, but it’s difficult to voice when others are excited about investments in nature-based solutions, or when friends are just beginning to think about how they can minimise their environmental impact.

Surely offsets are better than nothing? Surely we shouldn’t be negative about efforts to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere?

Well, no. Though I feel like a bit of a party-pooper or a self-righteous environmentalist to say so, it’s where I’m at. Offsets are not a solution to climate change.

Here is why:

(1) Offsets are by definition not a solution. This is one to repeat to yourself a few times over, and to return to in a couple of minutes also. Offsets do not reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), at best they lead to no net increase in atmospheric concentrations. Which leads us to…

(2) At any less than their best, they lead to increases in of carbon dioxide. This is because of what I call the ‘non-identity of carbon emissions’. Offsetting is an example of reification (when you think of or treat something abstract as a physical thing, e.g. borders). Offsetting depends on an abstraction – we must choose to treat the removal of carbon emissions in place x as identical to your particular carbon emissions in another place y. The fact that this is not of course true leaves a huge amount of scope for error. For example –

  • Asymmetry. In theory, if I emit 10 tonnes of CO2, and then remove 10 tonnes of CO2, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide should be returned to the same level as it was prior to my actions. Except there’s reason to believe this isn’t true.
  • Additionality. Emissions are not a one-time event. To have offset my emissions, I need to show that the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere wouldn’t have otherwise happened (if it would have happened, then my emissions are additional). But more than this, I need to show that carbon dioxide is removed additionally from the atmosphere for the entirety of the lifecycle of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – which is likely well over 300 years. This is a huge challenge – there are few actions I could take which I would be confident of preserving over a number of centuries. To take the most simple example of restoring ecosystems as a form of offsetting as an example, there’s a very real risk of many ecosystems which are currently sinks (i.e. they store carbon dioxide at present) becoming sources as (ironically) global average temperatures increase.
  • Jevon’s Paradox. Jevon’s paradox occurs when the gain created by an increase in efficiency for a particular resource is reduced by a corresponding increase in the rate of consumption of that resource because of the increased efficiency. This is relevant because offsetting is essentially meaningless in a complex system. We simply do not have a baseline upon which we can work out the outcomes of offsetting. To give an example, a wind farm in Peru may claim to be an offset because it is saving on fossil fuels, but the subsequent access to electricity gives rise to increases of economic activity which ends up creating a far greater energy demand than would have been offset. This example is perhaps an unfair one because renewable energy projects are not understood to be offsets for this reason… (…except, enter Mark Carney)

Of course, for the reasons above and more, any good offsetting project will subscribe to some sort of certification scheme and be conservative about its numbers. But even then…

(3) Even if we could guarantee that all offsets worked, there simply aren’t enough available to be able to offset our global emissions. At the most obvious level, current global emissions are at 55 Gt CO2/year. Taking the very top IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) estimate of what might be achievable across a range of carbon removal approaches for 2050 (both nature-based solutions and BECCs etc.) gives a potential carbon removal total of 38.9 Gt CO2/year (the lowest estimate is just 1.83 Gt CO2/year). And this comes with the note that estimates do not account for constraints like land competition and sustainability concerns.

The polemical way to think about this, is that offsetting at scale requires stuffing the geosphere into the biosphere (a paraphrase of Professor Peter Smith, University of Aberdeen). It’s not possible. The area of land required to sequester 2 Gt CO2 through ecosystem restoration is estimated at 678 million hectares – that’s about twice the land area of the country of India for just a fraction of our global annual emissions (Nature briefing, Girardin et. al, 2021).

Offsetting at scale requires stuffing the geosphere into the biosphere

Don’t get me wrong, carbon removal is an important part of responding to the challenge of climate change. But, carbon removal must be treated as separate to mitigation, and our dependence on future scaling of carbon removal of needs challenging.

This is illustrated well by the above graph. Offsetting leads us towards a narrative that we needn’t be concerned about the blue area, so long as we increase the green area too. Except, this just isn’t possible. Our present annual emissions dwarf the full theoretical potential of carbon removal (i.e. the green area of negative emissions will never be able to compensate for the current level of our emissions).

Our present annual emissions dwarf the full theoretical potential of carbon removal

Ultimately, offsetting isn’t viable. Only a huge and very real cut to carbon emissions is an adequate response to the challenge of climate change before us. And this is another challenge. The graph above points us towards net zero at mid-century, i.e. the majority of activities – driving, manufacturing, heating, electricity generation – emitting as close to zero emissions as possible by 2050, with any remaining emissions requiring the equivalent amount of emissions to be removed from the atmosphere.

Because carbon removal is not unlimited, net zero only makes sense at a society-wide level (or wider, given the necessity of global net zero). We cannot achieve net zero by only encouraging individuals and organisations to attain net zero; we must completely decarbonise everything and use carbon removals as additions to this.

Net zero only makes sense at a society-wide level.

Individuals and organisations need equipping to be a part of this transformation of decarbonising the decisions of everyday life – offsetting is too often a distraction to this because it pedals the deceit that business as usual + carbon removal is an option. It isn’t.

(4) And so, finally, offsets are themselves a form of climate injustice. In the early 2030s, we will go past 1.5 degrees. As we move from 1.5 degrees to 2 degrees, several hundred million more people will be exposed to climate related risks and be made susceptible to poverty (IPCC, Oct’ 2018). These people live primarily in the Global South. It is insulting in this context that richer nations, individuals and corporations make claim to the validity of carbon-intensive production and consumption on the basis of offsetting, which does not even aim to reduce overall climate risk.

We are fast headed to a climate apartheid dystopia. We have already exploited the land, labour and resources of climate-vulnerable nations, locating the major sites of extractivism on the doorsteps of poor communities whose health and well-being are affected, while restricting freedom of movement. Now it is proposed that we operate a system of carbon colonialism – occupying and exploiting land for the purposes of carbon removal while doing little to end the ethos of rampant consumption which has necessitated it.

This is the logical extreme to what often takes the form of small scale projects which arguably do not cause harm. But that’s not the point. Pareto improvements can still be the cause of injustice (just because kidney seller and kidney recipient both benefit does not mean no exploitation has occurred). Offsets commodify what is no-one’s to own. And it’s a problem that they take advantage of existing power imbalances, operating where maximum possible emissions reductions can be achieved at the lowest possible cost. We know something has gone wrong when the collapse of aviation in the midst of the pandemic causes a collapse of income for carbon removal projects.

This is the thing: offsets are comforting, they reduce the problem of climate change to CO2 parts per million, they create a way of our paying penance for climate transgressions, and the price they ask is one we can pay. But the uncomfortable truth is that justice is not a price you pay, it’s a commitment you keep, or an ethos you live by. Offsets know no morals, which is – really – just how we would like it.

Where does this leave us? Should we not encourage people to offset? I think that the challenge of climate change demands our very best. It demands our creativity, generosity, and our commitment. Offsets actively ask only what we feel we can spare, a reasonable market price for a service and product.

We should resist this push. We should absolutely give towards ecosystem restoration, and advocate for safe, just and managed carbon removal. But our giving and advocacy should be motivated by justice, and not linked to the logic of compensation and offsets and corporate strategies to maintain a profitable status quo.

There are many difficult questions here, and few easy answers. I’d love to hear from you about where your thinking is up to.

1 Comment

  1. Where does this leave us? Should we not encourage people to offset?

    The greatest emitters of CO2 is us. As we take in oxygen we emit CO2. And in balance the foliage of the planet reverses the process.
    If this is true, and I believe it to be that man is the greatest offender, then what must become of him.
    Along with climate control is the accompanying discussion of population control. Now there are varying views among the activists as to what would the ideal world population be to ensure the security of the environment. Some think half the present world population, some think less than a billion. Today it is at 7.9 billion.

    Birth rate reduction would not suffice I would think with the constant drum beat of urgency. The question is: What do the hardliners have in mind? How far are they be willing to go?
    Some must be expendable. And who might they be?


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