Post No.: 0467
Carbon offsetting strategies have their supporters and critics. For their supporters, it seems to make logical sense that it’s okay to release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide, into the atmosphere if one can offset the equivalent of them by funding projects or measures that’ll reabsorb that total (net zero emissions) or more (negative emissions) from the atmosphere in the future. For their critics though, it’s questionable whether this is actually what’s happening or what’s going to happen in reality because many of these offsetting schemes and forecasts have been poorly calculated and the ‘net zero’ or ‘neutral’ claims by some corporations have been overstated.
For example, some offsetting schemes involve claiming to have supported the building of wind farms that were going to be built anyway. Wind farms and other renewable energy projects also won’t reabsorb the greenhouse gases that have been emitted. And if companies receive offsetting credits in order to incentivise them to reduce their emissions then it can perversely incentivise the production of more emissions so that those companies can later receive credits for reducing those emissions from an artificially high baseline!
Some saplings may get planted and as a tree grows it will, as a net result, absorb and lock away carbon from the atmosphere, but they’ll only do this as they’re growing, and if these trees will get cut down or especially if burned or will decompose in the future then that carbon will just eventually get re-released again i.e. more important than planting little seeds or saplings in the soil is keeping fully-grown trees alive. Keep that carbon locked within trees on the ground – or at least within buildings or other permanent structures; although the former is best for preserving biodiversity if the right trees in the right places are planted. (Burning land in a planned and controlled manner for the purpose of reducing the hazard of spreading wildfires may be acceptable though.) Carbon capture was covered in Post No.: 0327.
A planted seed or sapling does not replace a fully-grown tree anyway – otherwise if I owed you £10 today, I could just give you £1 in a bank account in your name and say, “Well over time it’ll be worth £10 if you just wait”(!) As you can see, it’s hardly a fair compensation and you probably wouldn’t be happy, if you were rational. Rationally, a fully-grown tree tomorrow isn’t worth the same as a fully-grown tree today, otherwise no one should care about late payments for bills or loans. A seed or sapling is obviously not equivalent to a tree. And if a planted tree eventually gets cut down again anyway then that’d be equivalent to waiting until that £1 in your bank account grows into £10 then having that £10 being taken away from you again! But this will supposedly be fine because once more I will ‘offset’ this with another seed or sapling worth £1 again. You’re welcome(!)
Some corporations use such marketing tricks to make themselves appear ‘green’. Planting two or three saplings (which they’ll call ‘trees’) for every one fully-grown tree cut down or for every certain amount of carbon dioxide or equivalent emitted is just PR – it’s an IOU note rather than a timely repayment. As above, it’s predicted to eventually pay the planet back for what was taken from it but in the meantime that carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere and amplifying the greenhouse effect, and these little saplings haven’t had a chance to take much of that away yet. In this meantime, the glaciers are already melting, the weather’s more extreme, etc. and it’ll take at least a couple of decades before those trees have sunk the amount of carbon dioxide or equivalent that was originally emitted. It’s like farting in a room full of people, then switching on an extractor fan that’ll take a couple of minutes to wind up to speed. It’s certainly better than nothing, but people’s lungs will have already turned at least a little bit brown by then…
So according to its critics, carbon offsetting, so far, has overall been a deception, a PR stunt, to get governments off the backs of corporations, industries or large individual polluters, such as those who use private jets, without actually making enough of a compensation to the planet or public good. The atmosphere is unavoidably shared by all even though some pollute it more than others. Meow.
Voluntary schemes present no penalty if people, corporations or countries fail to meet them. And corporations donating to an environmental charity per flight or purchase of their product, when we drill down to actually check how much they claim to be doing, often amount to so little that it’s a mere gesture that’s more for their PR and advertising propaganda than anything else – offsetting only a tiny fraction of their total emissions but making it sound like they’re behaving virtuously to their customers and potential customers. The voluntary offset trade market, such as where people can offset their flight travels, is considered under-regulated too.
There’s also the compliance market, where more polluting countries and private corporations can try to buy ‘carbon credits’ from less polluting ones. (Richer countries try to export their rubbish to poorer countries to deal with too, although fewer countries now accept this practice.) But this generally means the more money one has, the more one can pay to pollute and make even more money. This is why some believe that offsetting is just an easy way for governments, businesses and individuals to continue polluting without needing to change their own behaviours. It’s as if money excuses polluting activities.
This links with the dilemma of putting a price on nature – it makes countries care about stuff in nature because they have quantifiable value, but it also risks commoditising natural resources as things to simply dig up and trade for economic gain.
Some rich and famous people talk about tackling climate change but hypocritically pollute far more than average, such as by flying more than most people because of leisure or work. Aeroplanes deposit carbon dioxide high in the atmosphere too. According to one calculator, foregoing just one 4,000-mile flight will save the same amount of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) as ditching eating meat for one entire year. So a vegetarian or vegan person who flies frequently is likely to be much worse than a meat-eater who doesn’t fly at all. (One way to calculate a ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ is by using a gas’s ‘global-warming potential’ (GWP). But we also need to account for the rate that a particular greenhouse gas decays in the atmosphere too.)
Even though it’s often for work, enough wealth doesn’t seem to be enough to stop the way these people work and consider other ways of working (although the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown life has hopefully given everyone a few ideas, thus turning short/mid-term threats into potential long-term opportunities). And their jet set lifestyles are aspirational to most people who look up to them.
Arguing that it’s therefore down to governments and international treaties to solve this problem, rather than personal self-control and regulation, is basically admitting that people won’t change unless they’re forced to. But democratic governments need an electorate that overall puts the environment before the economy. However, the electorate, or politburo, of a major economic power will not likely want to sacrifice their own country’s economic production in any way unless other countries are willing to do the same for their economies too, because countries are still competing against each other rather than acting as one human race on a tiny, precious planet.
Both countries and corporations can and do use ‘creative spin’ and questionable accounting methods to make it look like they’re taking meaningful or sufficient action. There is no real ‘central government of the world’ to effectively enforce international treaties if the richest and most powerful nations don’t want to cooperate, and we still largely measure our success in monetary terms rather than according to health, happiness and environmental welfare. These don’t always correlate because the richest countries in the world according to GDP are not necessarily the healthiest, happiest or most environmentally considerate. If the specie’s downfall will be self-inflicted then individualistic or groupistic (at any group level apart from total global inclusivity) and short-termist selfishness and greed will be the human specie’s downfall.
One could try to live a sustainable lifestyle on one’s own private patch of land. But planting trees and growing enough crops for food requires relatively a lot of land per person, one will need to preferably live in a sunny enough place, and this doesn’t counteract any plastic consumption or other types of consumption and waste if one wants to live a luxurious lifestyle – global warming is just one environmental concern of many. Our natural drive to seek luxury effectively means that we instinctively aspire to live as inefficiently as possible because luxury is by definition excessive; the converse of mere necessity. And because of the land space required, it’s not going to be feasible or sustainable for everybody on the planet to do hence some kind of consumption reduction will still be necessary.
Our natural drive is to be energy efficient in the sense of being personally lazy with our own bodies and minds i.e. not doing any work if we don’t have to do it. But this means that other things do the work for us (like heavy metal boxes, as in automobiles) – and those things typically use up a lot of total energy and resources from the planet. (Now energy in an enclosed system isn’t being destroyed but transferred or converted into other forms, but its usefulness won’t ever overall increase, due to entropy. Understanding that any and all pollution doesn’t just ‘disappear into nothing’ in the wider environment, and whatever we use as resources doesn’t just ‘come from nothing’, should make us understand how interconnected we are to the wider environment, how we impact it and how we depend upon it for every single thing we do.)
Some believe that being environmentally friendlier must be expensive, but although some changes will come with a costly initial outlay, the long-term benefits should be worth it – such as the infrastructure for electrical vehicle fast charging, double/triple-glazing and insulation measures for old properties that don’t have them yet, and maybe installing solar panels too. Overall, living more sustainably should be naturally cheaper – after all, poorer people almost invariably have lower net carbon footprints. It’s just that most people want to keep their current lifestyles, or make it even more luxurious, which might be fair for the most poor, but the middle-classes and above don’t want to sacrifice any pleasures they currently have.
Therefore, in principle, carbon offsetting makes moral sense. But, in practice, it needs to all be fairly and accurately calculated and regulated to ensure that such schemes will truly offset whatever one is emitting. ‘Buy now, pay later’ is still better than ‘buy now, don’t ever pay’ (or really, ‘buy now, other people and future generations pay’) but it’s still ‘buy now, pay later’ with most, if not all, of these current offsetting schemes. We wouldn’t accept a lack of an interest rate on loans in other contexts so we shouldn’t accept a lack of one here either. But this is difficult to calculate, especially for the runaway effects that need to be factored in, like the glaciers melting in the meantime. We also need to factor in any unwelcome side-effects of certain ‘green’ projects, such as on the local communities where they’ll be situated.
Meow. Rather than concurrently or afterwards, perhaps offsetting is something that’ll need to be done many years before starting a significant polluting activity? Please tell us what you think about the various issues related to carbon offsetting by using the Twitter comment button below.