Upset about offsets

A recent story on offsets reported in the Tyee caught my eye. In a nutshell, a residential subdivision development on Denman Island was prevented from going ahead in part because of the magic of carbon offsets.

First of all, more conservation by preventing this type of development is a good thing. But in what way is this an offset? To simplify: before there was a chunk of forest and polluters; after there will be a chunk of forest and polluters. It is just that now that polluters will be able to claim “carbon neutrality” (one million tonnes of CO2 worth, no small amount) by virtue of not having destroyed the forest to make a subdivision.

And so it goes with the world of offsets. This case seems particularly egregious in that credit is being given for leaving things as they are. At least, in most offset projects credit is given for actually reducing emissions somewhere else. Even that system has huge problems: how to tell if the project would not have gone ahead anyway? how to verify real emission reductions, especially when some of them are measured over years (energy efficiency savings) or decades (in the case of planting trees)?

I’ve become a bit of a carbon fundamentalist on offsets. An offset regime would be fine if we only needed to reduce our emissions by one-third or one-half — in that case, all that matters is the emissions being reduced somewhere, at least cost. But our challenge is to reduce emissions to zero as soon as possible, and even then we will need to be planting trees and converting back some suburbs to agricultural land or forests.

So emission reductions are good but they cannot “offset” existing emissions because those reductions would need to happen anyway at some point in the near future. The only real offset is a technology that captures emissions from the air and puts them underground forever, and we do not have such a technology on hand.

Last week the BC government issued draft regulations governing offset projects as they relate to the Western Climate Initiative. And while the proposal talks about “high-quality” offsets that are additional, verifiable and enforceable, I am skeptical that they are helpful. If anything they only serve to delay the inevitable reductions we will have to make if we want a habitable planet for our grandchildren.

That may happen sooner than we think, as the supply of offsets is limited (even on a worldwide basis) relative to the looming demand for them as rich countries try to offset their way to emission reduction targets. In the WCI case, it is a bit of a joke: half (well, OK, 49%) of emission reductions can take the form of offsets. And the WCI would facilitate capital transfer away from BC to facilitate emission reductions elsewhere (depending on supply). In other words, a big part of the game is to subsidize projects in other jurisdictions rather than bite the bullet and reduce emissions ourselves. And if everyone tries to do that …

Bottom line: don’t fool yourself by buying offsets when you travel, and don’t let the government fool you by pretending that offsets are the same as real emission reductions. If you want more, Mother Jones has a couple recent articles (here and here) on offsets at the international level, to give you a sense of how big and corrupted this can get.

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