The murky world of carbon off-setting.

backroom dealings

Points on carbon off-setting from Kevin Smith of London Rising Tide;

• Offset companies are selling a “peace of mind” to consumers where none should exist. This breeds complacency.
• Some of the most polluting companies (and politicians) are using offsets as a cheap form of greenwash – a distraction from their inherently unsustainable practices and a refusal to take more serious action on climate change.
Creative accountancy and dubious scientific methodologies are often used to inflate profit margins.
• Our knowledge of the carbon cycle is so limited that it is impossible to say whether tree plantations even have even a net positive benefit in terms of mitigating climate change, let alone exactly quantifying this supposed benefit into a saleable commodity.
• It is impossible to determine the baseline of what would have happened if the project had not taken place that would enable calculations of how many credits could be generated.
• Projects that look great on the website or in the leaflet are often, in practice, mismanaged, ineffective or detrimental to the local communities who have to endure them.
• The media and certain celebrities have been complicit in promoting an analysis of climate change that puts all the focus on individual lifestyles and draws attention from the wider, systemic changes that need to be made in our societies and economies.

The act of commodification at the heart of offset schemes assigns a financial value to people’s desire to act on climate action, and neatly transforms this potential into another market transaction.

There is then no urgent need for people to question the underlying social and economic structures that brought about climate change in the first place – one has just to click and pay the assigned price to get ‘experts’ to take action on your behalf.

Not only is it ineffective and based on half-baked ‘guessing games’ and dubious science, it is also very disempowering for the participants.

‘The methodology for verifying Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) projects under Kyoto has been beset with numerous allegations of corruption, project mismanagement, lack of verifiable reductions and negative impacts on local communities.

Some chemical factories in China have been generating hundreds of millions of Euros in CDM credits by installing cheap equipment that stops the generation of a potent green house gas called HFC-23. In a report in the January 2007 issue of Nature magazine, it is estimated that it would have cost 100 million euros to make these changes by simply regulating via an international body. Instead 4.6 billion euros has been spent on purchasing credits generated by the CDM projects. This Kyoto-generated money could have been invested in renewable energy projects.’ pg.55)

It’s a murky old world this carbon off-setting game.

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11 Responses to The murky world of carbon off-setting.

  1. Pete Smith says:

    None of this should come as any surprise to anyone who’s worked in large organisations. I lost count of the number of large and important projects I was involved in that were based on “half-baked ‘guessing games’”. Early finger-in-the air best estimates are rapidly translated into hard numbers that define the way the project moves forward. And then people wonder why a year or two down the line none of the numbers add up and money is disappearing into a black hole.
    I agree wholeheartedly with the original post. The governance processes that have evolved around carbon offsetting are just a smokescreen and a license to pollute. The absurdity of the whole thing is reflected in the fact I can ‘offset’ a holiday flight for about a tenner, but if I try to make the same trip in a low-carbon manner it costs me £hundreds.

  2. matt says:

    > The absurdity of the whole thing is reflected in the fact I can ‘offset’ a holiday flight for about a tenner, but if I try to make the same trip in a low-carbon manner it costs me £hundreds.

    Good point. It is absurd.

  3. earthpal says:


    The offset trade was always going to be wide open to corporate and governmental exploitation.

    And the risk is that it will undermine the vital importance of research and production of renewables.

  4. PHIL says:

    Here’s an idea for offsetting that would work though.
    How would it be if every time you bought petrol, or indeed anything that involves burning carbon, you were given the opportunity to buy a scratch card. First prize would be a home wind turbine or a solar panel.

    Now, the companies making the scratch cards should make sure that they only make enogh profit from the scheme to cover costs……all other funds go into prizes.

    Now, the thing is, if you win a prize, then your carbon footprint gets smaller. But, even if you lose, then at least you know that you benefit from less carbon being burned somewhere else.


  5. matt says:

    I can see you in front of the BP Board now Phil doing your presentation with great enthusiasm!

  6. Pete Smith says:

    Yeah, I see what you’re getting at Phil, but I have reservations. The thing about prizes is that they have to be desirable enough for the punters to want to fork out for the ticket. The truth is that many people don’t want a solar panel on the roof or a turbine on the chimney. They’ve seen “The Good Life”, so they know for a fact this alternative energy stuff is difficult and messy and unreliable and you have to get up in the middle of the night to turn a pump off or fix a leak.
    Even if you find someone who’s bought into the ‘dream’, buys a ticket and wins the kit, they may well end up being disappointed. Small turbines need more wind to make them viable than is available down a suburban street, and only half of houses have a south-facing roof to stick the panel on.
    Schemes like this rely on good publicity and momentum. As soon as ‘Watchdog’ and the Sun start reporting problems, they’re dead in the water.

  7. PHIL says:

    You know, during the Second World War, people did all sorts of things to raise money for Spitfires. They also collected metal for battleships.
    I wonder what we’ll end up doing as global warming really kicks in? I really see a future in wind turbines…..and no matter who owns them, or where they are, in the end, we’re all winners.

  8. Pete Smith says:

    Depending on which version of WW2 home front history you read, collecting pots and pans for Spitfires and iron railings for tanks were either (a) crucial contributions to the war effort or (b) morale-boosting exercises. I prefer (b) myself, principally because my old mum, who lived in London throughout the Blitz and was as patriotic as they come, told me so. People signed up to the schemes because it made them feel they were doing something useful, even if it was tacitly acknowledged it made very little difference.
    Are we into the same kind of self-deception in the new war against climate change? Stick a turbine on your roof, not because it actually generates any useful power, but as a public statement of solidarity? Isn’t this drifting into the same area as carbon off-setting? “I can drive my car as much as I like because I’ve got a windmill on my roof, so I’m obviously doing my bit”.

  9. matt says:

    Yes, there’s no better answer to climate change than down shifting consumption …. REDUCE, reuse, recycle.

  10. danlewer says:

    All of LRT’s criticisms of offsetting schemes are valid, particularly with regard to the complexity of the climate and the difficultly of baslining ‘what would have happened’.

    This doesn’t mean that offsetting projects are inherently counterproductive. The reason many of them have gone wrong is that we believe we are purchasing an ‘offset’ – a product in its own right – rather than investing in a green project (probably overseas).

    It is down to the consumer to be more engaged with where their money is going.

  11. matt says:

    Thanks Dan. I’ve brought over some info to The Coffee House to spread the word on this Gold Standard. A very good idea. 🙂

    The UK government appears to be moving towards a similar system of grading off-setting companies. They are mushrooming everywhere after all.

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