Not since the Catholic Church sold indulgences to reduce time in purgatory has there been such a flourishing market in the forgiveness of sin. Thanks to climate change, a rash of organisations are now offering to absolve guilt over polluting if we pay them to “offset” carbon, sometimes by planting trees. While their motives may be admirable, this new gold rush could prove to be a dangerous delusion.
EasyJet, in pledging this week to offset the emissions from its flights for what will be less than £1 per ticket, is effectively offering a “get out of hell free” card. Passengers can tick the “offset” box and continue on their merry way, unaware that the offer prices carbon dioxide well below its trading value.
The budget airline joins a growing list of corporations that promise to calculate the emissions of certain activities and purchase carbon credits from projects that remove an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases elsewhere.
This kind of offsetting has a 20-year history and has helped pioneering companies address the impact of their supply chains. But it is much easier to buy the credit than verify the reduction — especially if it takes place on another continent and might have happened anyway.
Take trees. Reforestation has rightly become fashionable, given the devastation wreaked on forests by agriculture. But trees need years of tender care to grow big enough to act as carbon sinks; and their value depends on where they are. Clicking “donate” does not guarantee proper stewardship, or auditing. The Vatican’s own modern-day experiment with indulgences ran into trouble in 2007, when a forest that was supposed to make the Holy See carbon neutral turned out not to exist.
Even real projects may not represent a net gain to the environment. A 2016 study found that 73 per cent of carbon credits provided little or no environmental gain, as they supported projects that would have happened anyway. That figure rose to 85 per cent of projects under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, which issues a carbon credit for each tonne of CO2 avoided through investments in developing countries.
Despite this, the Irish government merrily states that it will use CDM to meet its 2020 climate change targets. If governments are so blind, how can consumers be sure where their money is going?
Some watchdogs have developed rigorous methodologies to assure the integrity of the offset process. These include Gold Standard, created by WWF in 2003, and the American Carbon Registry, which has issued more than 90m carbon credits on the California cap and trading exchange.
The ACR calculates the emissions reductions needed and the legitimate benefits of, for example, removing methane from old coal mines, or building anaerobic digestion plants. Notably, it puts its calculations out for public comment and scientific review.
Mary Grady of ACR-owner Winrock International, says, “You may have invested, you may have planted trees, but you haven’t offset until the emissions reductions have occurred and been verified.” In other words, offsetting is a serious long-term process.
Yet too many organisations are giving the impression of instant gratification. That is false advertising. Even worthy projects risk letting consumers off the hook, by giving the impression that we don’t need to change our habits. Paramount Business Jets has put huge effort into helping customers work out the impact of their private jet flights and now offers to help them donate to environmental charities to mitigate their pollution. Paramount founder Richard Zaher agrees that “offsets should not be used as a free pass to fly as much as one wants”. But if a private jet emits roughly eight times as much per passenger as a 747, the most reliable way to reduce its impact is to leave it on the tarmac.
The cheapness of some offsets also implies that taking care of our pollution is a doddle. Shell is promising to offset carbon emissions from UK drivers’ petrol or diesel purchases at no extra charge while investing £10m. Even 16th-century indulgences weren’t free — historians suggest the going rate was more like two day’s wages for a middling sin.
Far greater scrutiny is needed. Demand for voluntary carbon offsets has grown 140-fold in a decade, according to the non-profit group Forest Trends. Public concern is a good thing. But as organisations proliferate, the risks of double counting and outright fraud grow. Greater transparency, accountability and audit will be needed — perhaps with a coalition of the willing, along the lines of the central bank-led Network for Greening the Financial System.
It would be tragic if virtue signalling through offsetting became more admired than concrete efforts to reduce emissions at source. The Walt Disney Company states that it turns to offsetting, after energy efficiency and buying from renewable sources. American Airlines does not run a consumer carbon offset programme, but does buy newer, more fuel-efficient planes.
Carbon offsetting is shaping up to be the greatest mis-selling scandal since the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel sold pardons to redeem the dead. Martin Luther attacked this practice in 1517, in his 95 theses.
Five hundred years later, those of us who seek planetary redemption should reduce our carbon footprint in ways that we control — rather than relying on middlemen who may or may not plant trees. The road to hell, I seem to remember, was paved with good intentions.
The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow
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