Carbon Neutral? Probing Carbon Offsets

It seems like such a good idea. When you produce pollution, you buy an offset to balance it out, leading to a ‘carbon neutral’ lifestyle, where the emissions you contribute to are countered by carbon sinks intended to help address climate change by slowing the release of carbon into the atmosphere. More and more products are sold with carbon neutral labeling, consumers are invited to buy offsets with the purchase of plane tickets, you can even buy them when you purchase a new car.

They’re the next iteration of greenwashing, yet another example of how activism can be commodified and turned into a product. Resistance and environmental advocacy twist around each other into something that can be bought and sold, thereby allowing companies to profit. Consumers of the product think they’re helping the environment and rest on their laurels, satisfied that they’re doing the right thing, doing something good, making the world a better place. And yet, the environmental problems persist, because the offsets don’t address the underlying problem. Instead, they create a layer of mythology that consumers buy into in their desire to be ecologically conscious.

The primary issue with carbon offsets is that they represent a redistribution of responsibility, not an actual attempt to address rising carbon dioxide levels. When you buy offsets, you aren’t reducing the amount you pollute, you’re just trying to mitigate it. Mitigation should be a last resort approach to environmental pollution, rather than a normalised and widely praised first step. Each time you fly in an aircraft, that plane is producing emissions, and that’s something you can’t avoid. What you can do is look for other ways to reduce your carbon use; if you have to fly for work, perhaps you can afford to buy locally produced produce, for example. Instead of having your vegetables flown to you, you can purchase them from someone local who doesn’t travel far to deliver them.

When the buck is passed with a carbon offset, the consumer forgets about personal responsibility. It’s rare indeed to see me discussing personal responsibility here, I know, but this is a case where consumers are, yes, directly responsible for deciding how much carbon they want to contribute to the environment. They are also surrounded by a culture that puts tremendous pressure on them that may influence their choices or actively force them to use more carbon than they might otherwise choose.

People who choose to fly for vacations, for instance, are making a conscious decision. Someone who’s obliged to fly to work is also making a choice, but it’s a more complex one. The job may offer a number of benefits beyond simple survival on the wages or salary provided. People who choose to buy a lot of goods for their homes are, again, loading up on their carbon footprint and making a choice, but again, that choice isn’t always simple. These choices, though, should be actively discussed, to encourage people to think about what they consume and how they consume it, and to provide information about alternatives.

Buying carbon offsets isn’t necessarily inherently a bad thing, especially for someone who is also¬†actively trying to reduce the pollution produced in the first place, but it should be a secondary thing. And in the process of buying them, people ought to think carefully about their nature and source. One problem with a lot of offsets is lack of accountability. Is the money really going to a concrete example of an offset that will genuinely trap carbon and slow the rate of CO2 into the atmosphere? How is it being used? Is the company selling the offset taking advantage of proceeds for administrative costs, rather than actual implementation of offsets? Are you actually helping to protect forests or plant trees or promote ecologically-friendly activities, or are you really just buying a metaphorical indulgence for your sins, appeasing your guilt with a cash payment?

Nature is not a petulant child to be bribed with candy brought back from a business trip. Offsets don’t address the fundamental underlying problem, the fact that countries like the United States produce very high carbon emissions and these need to be reduced. Not countered, but actively reduced. Offsets are a bandaid and a feel-good measure, not necessarily a meaningful or useful activity.

One of the most common offsets is tree-planting, which is something worth examining in more detail. If an offset is simply being used to create a tree farm for logging, it’s not very productive. When offsets replace downed trees, there’s no net gain there; trees were removed and now they’re being replaced, but nothing has really changed. Plantations also tend to be grown as monocultures, which makes them susceptible to disease, and doesn’t make them into complex, rich habitats for plants and animals. That means they’re not offering as much environmental benefit, and that includes undermining their carbon trapping ability. There’s a reason the soil in old growth forests is so rich and complicated. It’s not just because there are trees, but because there have been trees living in a complex ecosystem with plants and animals for hundreds or thousands of years, creating layers and layers of organic material that build up into a fantastic soil that supports life.

A tree farm isn’t equivalent to that, and can’t be. It may require substantial water and maintenance, could be sprayed with harmful chemicals to address concerns about disease, and might be logged once the trees are mature enough, which means those offsets basically did nothing. Those trees would have been planted anyway, grown to maturity, and then cut down; essentially, companies profit twice from the same plot because they can sell the trees as offsets and again as valuable board feet of timber.

Looking beneath the surface of so many ‘environmentally friendly measures’ reveals something that doesn’t even begin to faintly resemble something that’s good for the environment, yet so many consumers are unwilling to do that. A lack of desire to look behind the curtain and see how the sausage is made? An insistence that if you ignore the truth, it doesn’t affect you?