Wednesday, September 27, 2006
The Carbon Offset Con
From The New Internationalist
‘For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong.’ HL Mencken, journalist and social critic (1880-1956)
When British physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in 1972 of his dream of the ‘greening of the galaxy’ – in which humans would populate the stars by means of massive genetically engineered trees planted on comets – few took him seriously. Likewise when he advocated triggering nuclear explosions underneath space probes as a means of propulsion, most gave the idea a bemused miss. Dyson is, however, a tenacious character. When in 1977 he advocated using trees to soak up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, people took notice.1 Third time lucky.
The timing was certainly perfect. Scientific understanding about climate change was just beginning to provoke industry concerns that governments might soon start to crack down on corporate polluters. Seeking ways to head off this dreadful prospect – which one industry group once referred to as the ‘road to serfdom’ – some companies started to explore ways to ‘offset’ their emissions by using tree plantations rather than cut pollution at source.
It wasn’t until 1989 that the first carbon offset project was launched, conceived by US power company, Applied Energy Services (AES), together with the environmental think-tank World Resources Institute, the official US aid agency USAID, and the big development NGO, CARE. At the time, AES was looking for regulatory approval for a new 183 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Connecticut. It eventually got the go-ahead thanks to its ‘mitigation’ project in the Western Highlands region of Guatemala. The project entailed planting 50 million non-native pine and eucalyptus trees on some 40,000 small farm holdings in this deeply impoverished region, which in theory would ‘soak up’ the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions expected to be generated for the lifetime of the plant.2
According to Hannah Wittman of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, the project was a dismal failure. ‘What it did first and foremost was to take access to the trees out of the hands of ordinary people.’ An external evaluation revealed that subsistence activities undertaken by the largely indigenous population, such as gathering fuelwood for cooking, were now criminalized and conflicts erupted over rights to the trees, excarcerbating existing tensions over access to resources and local decision-making. Initially the tree species used were largely inappropriate for the area and resulted in land degradation. The evaluators, Winrock International, concluded in 1999 – 10 years after the project began – that AES’s offset target was falling far below the expected level. By 2001, farmers were still not receiving direct payments for the trees they planted and looked after and many were not aware that these trees were being used for storing carbon for AES. These problems, however, did not prevent the company from getting approval for its coal-fired power plant.2 Dyson’s legacy
But what some call ‘failure’, the offset industry calls ‘learning by doing’ – and it has been ‘learning by doing’ ever since. What could have been regarded as another one of Dyson’s more wacky notions is now part of a multi-billion dollar market that involves everyone from the world’s largest transnationals, governments, the World Bank and the UN, down to ‘boutique’ merchant banks, mom-and-pop offset companies, consultancies, and NGOs. The World Bank estimated the global carbon market, of which tree-planting is just one part, to be worth $11 billion at the end of 2005 – 10 times the value of the previous year.3
Carbon is now a hot commodity – and carbon offsets have arrived in the public consciousness. When you take a flight or rent a car, chances are the carbon emissions from that activity might already be ‘neutralized’ through some corporate scheme, or you may be given the option to neutralize them. The G8 meeting in Scotland last year was ‘carbon neutral’ according to its organizers, so too the élite business schmooze-fest, the World Economic Forum in Davos. It seems everyone is in on the game.
A rush of blood to the head
When it was announced that Coldplay’s latest album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, would be offset with 10,000 mango trees in Karnataka, India, it was met with much fanfare. After all, rock super-groups rarely addressed the environmental impacts of things like CD production, and so there was much positive publicity. Other rock stars were also clamouring for their own ‘celebrity forests’. Fans too could get in on the act. For just 25 dollars fans could get a certificate from the Carbon Neutral Company (formerly Future Forests) – the British offset company that devised the scheme – affirming that they had dedicated trees in ‘The Coldplay Forest’. A recent investigation into the scheme, however, revealed that all that glitters is not necessarily green.
A report in the Sunday Telegraph stated that, of the 10,000 trees that were supposedly distributed to small farmers in this largely dry Indian state, only a few hundred were found to be still alive. The rest perished through lack of water and inadequate financial and infrastructure support from the Carbon Neutral Company and its partners.
One of the project participants, Anandi Sharan Mieli of Women for Sustainable Development, accused the Carbon Neutral Company of having a ‘condescending’ attitude. ‘They do it for their interests, not really for reducing emissions. They do it because it’s good money,’ she was quoted as saying. The Carbon Neutral Company, however, blames Mieli’s group for not meeting its ‘contractual obligations’ to provide the necessary irrigation and support. Coldplay themselves claim no responsibility. According to a spokesperson for the band, ‘Coldplay signed up to the scheme in good faith with Future Forests and it’s in their hands. There are loads of bands involved in this kind of thing. For a band on the road all the time, it would be difficult to monitor a forest.’4
And there’s the rub. In the global carbon market, from its very inception in the AES scheme to ‘The Coldplay Forest’ and many more projects today, there is a complex chain of responsibility. Each link in that chain actually assumes little or no responsibility, so no-one is ultimately responsible (see ‘Uprooted’). Project partners blame project funders. Funders blame contractors. Contractors blame verifiers. Somehow everyone still manages to make money – except, often, local people.
But what is this whole offsets business about? Does planting trees or investing in other offsets projects solve climate change? Fossil fiction
‘The ordinary novel would trace the history of the diamond – but I say, “Diamond, what! This is carbon.” And my diamond may be coal or soot and my theme is carbon.’ DH Lawrence, writer (1885-1930)
Climate change is ultimately a narrative of oil, coal and gas. It is the story of humanity’s plundering of the earth’s fossil carbon, burning it and releasing it into the active carbon cycle, in turn disrupting the balance of carbon in air, soil and seas. If we were to succeed in harvesting all the ‘locked’ carbon in fossil fuels and setting it free to circulate in the atmosphere, we’d render the earth inhospitable to life as we know it. Unless we want to live on Venus, our task therefore is to leave that fossil carbon in the ground. This basic requirement, however, is precisely what the carbon market (of which offsets are a part) has been set up to avoid.
Rather than stop the flow of oil, coal and gas, the offset industry tells us that we can continue as normal. We can drive as much as want, fly as much as we want, and eat our non-organic Coldplay mangoes in the Canadian winter. We need not reduce; in fact we can now consume our way out of the problem. Now we can buy offsets on top of our Caribbean holiday and thus ‘neutralize’ our impacts. It is a seductive argument.
But it is a falsehood – a con.
That flight to Bermuda has an immediate impact on the climate. Aircraft emissions are of particular concern as not only do they release carbon dioxide and other pollutants, but also trail water vapour which has a significant heat-trapping effect in the atmosphere. Aircraft are also the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions as more of us are flying – and more frequently. If aircraft emissions are not reduced significantly, climate change will only accelerate.
Offsets do nothing about the very immediate impact of such emissions. Tree plantations at most provide temporary storage for carbon dioxide but even that is not immediate and the science is hotly disputed. Trees take time to grow and are susceptible to disease, fire, timber harvesting and natural decay (see ‘10 things you should know about tree “offsets”’, page 7). Oliver Rackham, a Cambridge University botanist and landscape historian, describes the problem succinctly: ‘Telling people to plant trees [to solve climate change] is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels.’
Tree planting projects have also often resulted in dramatic conflicts between local peoples dispossessed from their land and the big plantation companies grabbing it. These are not merely protracted courthouse conflicts, but at times pitched battles as people are often wounded and sometimes killed trying to reclaim their homes and livelihoods. Monoculture tree plantations such as of the ever popular eucalyptus and pine come with a string of negatives – including depletion of the water table, increased soil acidity, biodiversity loss and pesticide contamination. Some indigenous groups in the Amazon refer to them as ‘devil’s orchards’.
The plantation industry is now also experimenting with controversial super-carbon-absorbing varieties of genetically engineered trees to claim more offset potential and also to make them easy to pulp for paper. In short, the tree has become for many environmental groups and communities no longer an iconic symbol of the green movement, but often a metaphor for oppression, ecological devastation and misery.
It is precisely because of all the criticism by environmental groups and the bad press that has resulted, that offset companies have ramped-up investments in other types of projects besides trees. The new wave of offsets is likely to be in bioenergy – energy derived from agricultural and animal waste (biomass) and crops (biofuels). If the official offsets market, the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol, is anything to go by, than the new wave has already arrived. Over half of CDM’s registered projects (see ‘Carbon Offsets – The Facts’ page 14-15) are in bioenergy, mostly associated with the sugar, rice, corn and palm industries. The bioenergy revolution brings with it its own controversies, not least the question of land rights and concerns about genetic engineering. Equally, there is the possibility that expanded biofuel plantations could further threaten the world’s remaining natural forests. And lastly, there are concerns that the energy required to produce such fuels would be more than the energy they would in turn produce. All these issues are just beginning to surface and the offsets market will likely play a big role.
But for the moment the consumer demand for trees is strong and many companies are reluctant to forego such projects altogether. Planting a tree endures as the ultimate ‘good’ deed for many (even though in many cases offset companies don’t even plant trees, they just take credit for existing ones).
Another problem of the carbon market is its emphasis on the Global South. A majority of the world’s offset projects, especially those of the CDM, take place in the South, and there are a number of reasons for this. Foremost is cost. It is simply cheaper to invest in projects in Latin America, Africa or most of Asia than it would be in Europe or North America.
The other is spin.
Projects that suggest some sort of ‘development’ benefit for people in the South, such as Coldplay’s mango trees in India, have more appeal to potential ‘consumers’ of those carbon ‘offsets’ simply because they appeal to their charitable impulse. This ‘win-win’ ethic is a major selling point for an industry that is practically built on conscience. Not only does the consumer get to salve their eco-guilt but now they can feel even better with the knowledge that they’ve funded cooking stoves for Bangladeshi villagers.
The offset industry’s message is simple and seductive. The more you fly and the more you offset as a result, the more stoves impoverished families get. You don’t need to change your lifestyle, the climate will be saved, and poor communities will benefit – win-win-win. With a sell like that, it’s no wonder the carbon market is booming.
It is precisely for this reason that offsetters and governments are so fixated on the Majority World. When the announcement was made that the G8 meeting in Scotland in 2005 would be ‘carbon neutral’, the British host Government made a point of saying that the money would go to ‘clean development’ projects in Africa. A year later there is still no clarity on what specific projects have been funded to offset the summit’s emissions and what criteria were used. But such accountability doesn’t matter. The G8 needed to demonstrate action on its two core issues of Africa and climate change, and the positive press reports about the offsets announcement were proof that the strategy worked. This of course is a common feature of G8 summits. Some years ago the world’s eight most industrialized countries announced a commitment to deliver renewable energy to a billion people by 2020. To date there is little sign of movement on this pledge.
Few of us have the time, energy, expertise and diligence to follow up these claims and monitor the projects; therefore we only have the Government’s word for it. This is true of much of the carbon market as a whole. Distance serves them well.
I raise this issue with Climate Care founder and entrepreneur Mike Mason in his Oxford office. I show him the article in which Trusha Reddy reveals problems with their energy-efficient light bulb project in South Africa (see ‘Blinded by the Light’, page 12). I explain that it is difficult for ordinary consumers of offsets to be able to judge independently the merits of a project, especially when they are so far away. ‘Why? We’ve done that. We’ve visited all of our projects and have seen them for ourselves,’ remarks Mason. I suggest that he would have a vested interest in supporting his own company’s projects and that few people have his wealth and resources to be able to do such a first-hand investigation. He denies this, arguing that it is in his interests to ensure his company only invests in ‘sound’ projects. ‘Anyway,’ he adds, ‘we don’t solve South Africa’s problems.’ He then qualifies that by arguing that by saving energy, people are saving money.
‘I would rather that 100 per cent of people offset their emissions from flights than 50 per cent of those people not fly at all,’ argues Mason.
Which brings us to the final point – keeping carbon in the ground.
Since climate change is caused for the most part by extracting and then burning fossil carbon – oil, coal and gas – then any solution to climate change must aim to move us away from this dependency. For once that carbon is ‘liberated’ into the atmosphere, it compounds an already monumental problem. Carbon conundrums
Offsets slot into the oil, coal and gas continuum – they do not challenge it. Some argue that offsets at least educate the public about their carbon emissions, but what exactly does it teach? That it is OK to fly and drive so long as you pay some third party a small fee to ease your conscience? That we can consume our way out of a problem caused by our consumption in the first place?
One company, Australian-based Climate Friendly, promises us that ‘in five minutes and for the cost of a cappuccino a week you can go climate neutral’.5 Another, US-based Drive Neutral advertises that ‘for about the cost of a single tank of gas, you can neutralize your CO2 emissions for an entire year’.6
Many individuals and small organizations that buy offsets are probably eco-literate and do make other changes necessary to reduce their environmental impacts. But there are many that don’t. After all, if you truly believed that you were carbon neutral just for the cost of a cappuccino, what’s to stop you from flying for that weekend shopping trip to New York or Paris?
For those corporations fully dependent on and profiting from fossil fuels, offsets are a lifesaver. Oil giant BP has long been a carbon market enthusiast. A major investor in the World Bank’s carbon funds which sponsor dubious projects in the South, such as plantation projects in Brazil (see ‘Forest Fever’), BP now also offers Australian consumers its ‘Global Choice’ programme whereby the company offsets any of its petrol used to fill up your tank.7 At the same time, BP is well on the way towards completing its highly controversial pipeline spanning Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The Baku-Ceyhan-Tbilisi pipeline has been criticised by Amnesty International for threatening human rights in the three countries. Campaigners also warn that the $5 billion dollar pipeline project will cause ‘far more than the pollution from every car, truck, bus and train in the UK’ in terms of carbon emissions.8
Ford motor company has just launched its own offset initiative in partnership with US offsetter TerraPass.9 The average fuel economy for a Ford car is 18.8 miles per gallon. That’s last in US Environmental Protection Agency list of top six automakers.10 According to environmental studies professor Michael Dorsey of Dartmouth College in the US, ‘Ford is playing games and peddling gimmicks in its new partnership with TerraPass. If Ford wants to reduce CO2 and get serious about climate change it will increase its fleet’s overall miles per gallon (MPG) and not peddle spurious offsets based on cooked MPG numbers.’
Ford is also a member of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a US corporate think-tank that has just released a series of television commercials in the US dismissing the notion that climate change is a problem. ‘Carbon dioxide: THEY call it “pollution”, WE call it “life”,’ proclaim the adverts.
This is the carbon con. Offsets do little to challenge our consumption of fossil fuels. And if we are to avert the worst excesses of climate change, we must end our reliance on those fuels quickly. Offsets do not fundamentally challenge the huge inequities in the world. In fact, they sometimes make them worse. Offsetting doesn’t pressure companies to switch from fossil fuels to renewables or encourage governments to regulate polluting companies. It doesn’t stop airport runways being built, planes being flown, cars being driven or even coal-fired power plants being brought online. In fact, it encourages them to continue and expand. It feeds on the good intentions of consumers and ethical business so that the fossil-fuel industry can thrive.
Wild enthusiasm for the carbon market has fuelled investments in other Dyson-esque schemes such as emerging markets in ‘wetlands banking’ and ‘endangered species credit-trading’.11 It is but one part of a vigorous attempt to marketize environmentalism itself and force us to rely on those markets rather than democratic institutions for our ‘solutions’. And it does nothing to solve climate change.
Climate change is an issue we shouldn’t be ‘neutral’ on. Carbon offsets are at best a distraction and at worst a grandiose carbon laundering scheme. We need to grab hold of our responsibility for climate change and take action now. There is absolutely nothing wrong with funding renewables and even some well-designed and appropriate tree-planting projects. Just don’t equate them with a ‘license to pollute’. A ‘carbon positive’ agenda sees through the offset industry’s gambit and relies on a more fundamental commitment to solving climate change.
There are no easy answers. Solving climate change requires difficult choices to be made. But if seen in the context of wider social change, the movement is vast and strong. After all, there are vibrant global movements seeking to bring lasting and meaningful debt cancellation, end fossil fuel subsidies, reform the world trade system, and reinvigorate democratic control over our economies. Seen in this light, progress on any of these fronts has real benefits for the climate. According to Patrick Bond of the South African Centre for Civil Society, ‘If the World Bank were not holding the reigns on most Southern states’ monetary policy, more local fiscal resources could be used for renewables.’
The solution to climate change is social change. Tall order? Yes. Pipe dream? Perhaps. But it is ultimately what’s needed – and at least, seen from this perspective, we have a lot of friends and allies. After all, if Freeman Dyson can strike lucky with his wacky ideas, why can’t we?
What’s with all the carbon?
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that is released when fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal are burned.
Carbon in the context of this article refers to CO2 as well as other carbon-based greenhouse gases such as methane (CH4).
Carbon offsets are projects that are designed supposedly to ‘absorb’ carbon from the atmosphere – such as tree plantations – or assume savings in emissions that wouldn’t otherwise have been made – investments in energy-efficient light bulbs.
Carbon trading refers to the trade in ‘rights to pollute’ be they in the form of pollution quotas set by governments or ‘credits’ generated from offset projects.
The carbon market broadly refers to the market in offsets as well as pollution permit trading. There is an ‘official’ carbon market set out under the rules of the Kyoto Protocol (which includes both offset projects and permit-trading for compliance purposes), and a ‘voluntary’ market whereby individuals and companies volunteer to fund offset projects. Although commonly referred to as a ‘commodity’ market – like oil or coffee – by traders, the World Bank recently likened the global carbon trade to ‘currency’
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