Carbon offsets might be a dangerous distraction from more effective climate action, experts say
Countries hope to buy their way to lower emissions, but experts say carbon offsets can do more harm than good
At first blush, it sounds like a smart strategy: if you create carbon emissions in one place — by driving, flying, or drilling for oil, for example — you can make up for it by helping to fund a project that reduces greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere.
It's a practice called carbon offsetting, and while some offer it up as a winning fix for climate change woes, top experts say they amount to little more than a dangerous distraction.
Last week, the Canadian government announced a new greenhouse gas offset program that it says will help municipalities, farmers, Indigenous communities, businesses and others earn credits for projects that reduce emissions or remove them from the atmosphere.
"This system will encourage cost-effective emissions reductions right here in Canada and create new economic opportunities, particularly in the forestry, agriculture and waste sectors," said Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson in a media statement.
However Kate Ervine, associate professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, says carbon offsets aren't a viable solution to the climate crisis.
According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to address the climate crisis, countries around the world must reduce their emissions by nearly half of 2010 levels by 2030, and to net-zero by 2050 — but overall, emissions continue to increase.
Many countries are using carbon offsetting as a strategy to meet their Paris Agreement targets, Ervine explains, but the approach allows governments to look like they're taking action when they aren't.
"The biggest problem with carbon offsets is that they don't actually lower emissions," said Ervine in an interview with What on Earth guest host Johanna Wagstaffe.
"[Emitters] get to say, 'We're actually going to pay somebody else to do a climate good, and that's going to offset our emissions, or cancel out our climate bad.' But it doesn't reduce the emissions from where we are. It just takes us back to the starting point."
'A very dangerous distraction'
What's more, says Ervine, offsets reduce the urgency for governments to take the bigger steps needed to meet their climate commitments.
For example, the European Union has relied heavily on the UN's carbon trading scheme, called the Clean Development Mechanism, but a 2016 study found that 85 per cent of the offsets in that program were unlikely to reduce emissions.
"Industrial polluters were purchasing offsets instead of actually lowering their emissions. And what the data shows us is that there's been almost no dent in industrial emissions being lowered in the EU because of this strategy," said Ervine.
Ervine says many of the offset projects — things like forest protection and enhanced agriculture — are critically important and should continue, but they shouldn't allow large emitters to claim that they've lowered their emissions when they haven't.
The impulse behind offsets, she adds, is that societies want fixes for climate change that don't involve significant sacrifices.
"Many of us want to hear, and governments want to be able to tell us, that we can deal with this problem without any significant pain, without any need for significant change to our lifestyles," said Ervine.
She points to Bill Gates, who in a recent interview admitted to paying $7 million a year to offset his carbon emissions — but continues to fly in a private jet.
"He didn't take those difficult decisions to change the way that he's living. And this is the dream it sells us," said Ervine. "So I think it's a very dangerous distraction."
'They're basically zombies'
Adeniyi Asiyanbi, a postdoctoral research fellow in the University of Calgary's department of geography agrees.
He has closely examined the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, which was started by the UN in 2007 as a way to help reduce deforestation in southern hemisphere regions such as West Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.
Asiyanbi says the program was billed as a win-win for both the northern nations funding the projects (and generating most of the emissions) and for the southern nations whose preservation projects would be funded.
But in many areas, the initiatives were actually counterproductive, because local and Indigenous communities were pushed off their land, and forestry activities just moved to new locations outside the protected areas.
And while communities were promised huge benefits, few actually materialized, he says. Now Asiyanbi equates the legacies of many of the projects to "zombies."
"REDD+ has failed to stop deforestation, and yet there continues to be a lot of interest in REDD+ at the international level," said Asiyanbi.
"Many of the schemes have achieved too little to actually matter at all," he said. "[But they] continue to be advocated for, continue to be mobilized uncritically at the international level, despite the messiness on the ground and the failure to actually address climate change.
"So they're basically zombies — dead, essentially, but still managing to be mobilized in particular ways, driving mindless action in the way that a zombie walks on the landscape."
Many of the schemes have achieved too little to actually matter at all.- Adeniyi Asiyanbi, University of Calgary researcher
Now Asiyanbi is shifting his research to forestry-related offsets in Canada, especially Alberta and British Columbia. He doesn't expect to find the same issues that he did with the REDD+ program, but he points out that forest areas preserved through offset programs can easily succumb to wildfires — and any benefit of the offsets is lost.
'An incredible investment'
Still, some Canadian communities are appreciating the benefits of carbon offset programs.
As president of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of First Nations in British Columbia, Marilyn Slett helps oversee the Great Bear Rainforest Carbon Project, a program that generates roughly one million carbon offset credits per year.
To date, the Great Bear program has produced $43 million in revenue for eight coastal nations — among them Wuikinuxv, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai'xais, Nuxalk, Gitga'at, Metlakatla, and Haida — as well as additional funds for Nanwakolas Council which represents five other nations.
The largest buyers include the B.C. government, Vancity, Port Metro Vancouver and Harbour Air, and the sales are meant to end destructive logging practices, promote conservation and fund initiatives like Guardian Watchman programs, stewardship departments and ecotourism.
The agreement dictates that 65 per cent must go to conservation and stewardship, and the balance can be directed by the First Nations.
"What sets the carbon offsets that we have in our program apart is they're Indigenous-led, and it's reinvested in our communities," said Slett, adding that some communities might use the funds to move away from diesel fuel, while others invest in salmon research.
Some critics argue that governments should be funding Great Bear Rainforest preservation and ecological initiatives without offsets, but Slett sees significant benefit in them — for the land, for the people and for governance.
"We see the offsets being part of reinvestment and supporting our communities," said Slett. "Our stewardship departments, our leaders within our communities, we're sitting down at these tables, government to government."
Sales haven't been what they expected, admits Slett, but they have provided a sustainable source of funding, and she hopes that continues into the future.
"It really supports everybody. It supports British Columbia. It supports our communities. It supports people globally," said Slett. "And I think that's an incredible investment."