I wrote a previous article explaining the concept of carbon offsetting. Offsetting assumes that “an emission reduction achieved in one location has the same beneficial effects as an emission reduction achieved anywhere else”. Thus, it develops projects on this basis by “offsetting emissions somewhere with reducting or absorbing projects somewhere else”. Are offsetting projects really that positive?

The impact of such projects is debated due to a lack of efficiency and land grabbing for “sustainable management”.

Questioning whether carbon offsetting is a good thing or not is related to its fairness and climate justice.

We could start by questioning whether it is ethical for companies to offer their customers to fill in the gaps of their innovation. If planes are still flying with kerosene it is partly because it’s cheap to produce and not taxed, driving away any need to substitute it. In this case, airline companies are failing everyone by not using an alternative fuel and also encouraging customers to bear their failure. It is simply called greenwashing and greenlighting (I coined it from gaslighting ).

Greenwashing is one of the risks of offsetting projects. Instead of focusing on reducing emissions, organisations find ways to carbon offset or push it onto their customers.

On the customer-side voluntary carbon offsets could lead to a temporary feel-good effect encouraging more unsustainable behaviours than without taking part in the offsets. It is the idea of self-licensing. This could be used as an organisation’s strategy to encourage more consumption leading to more pollution. It is almost a license to pollute. This ability to pay for pollution enables further emission gaps between rich-poor countries as richer countries’ ability to pay for pollution is larger due to their purchasing power.

The last issue that is worth mentioning is land grabbing. Some carbon offsetting programmes are meant to sustainably manage forests and somehow some Kenyan tribes were deemed to not sustainably manage their forests and removed from their land, as they call it, relocated. This was done for the UN REDD+ programme or its full name Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. All of that is under the name of offsetting our high maintenance lifestyle.

Picture of African scenery, Oloololo escarpment in Kenya

So offsetting is still a good thing?

It depends on who is in charge and who it is done for. Does offsetting ever make up enough for the previous environmental harm to be compensated for? The petrochemical company Eni has promised to plant trees in Africa to become “net zero” by 2030. They have decided to do it through REDD+. Say no more. A Greenpeace report has calculated what the PR stunt would mean in practice “this bold claim may be impossible to achieve as it would require enormous tracts of forests to be saved from deforestation to meet this target” and summarising “if ENI was to offset all their emissions […] using carbon projects in developing countries’ forests, this is nearly impossible. These targets will not be achieved without harm to the forest-dependent communities.”

Overall voluntary carbon offsets make me think of redemption for our consumption by planting a few trees between the tropics. Is it a modern take on the middle-age practice of buying indulgences for a place in heaven? Maybe that’s just me


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