Friday, April 07, 2006

carbon offsets are a fraud

The Independent recently published a piece on 'How To Fly Around The World Without Costing The Earth'. They ignored the only credible answer (evolve yourself some wings) and went with the idea of using aircraft and then paying people to plant trees as carbon offsets.

A chap called Duncan Law responded. He points out that simple measuring of emissions is not enough; as aircraft emit at altitude, their impact is around three times as bad as if it were done on the ground. His most persuasive point is that carbon offsets are a nonsense because the emission is instant whereas the tree's absorption is over many years.

There are, however, many other problems too. It's impossible to say how much carbon a tree will store, so you cannot know how many trees to plant for your emissions. Beyond that, you cannot tell what your emissions are; figures on offset websites for, say, per mile driven usually don't take into account your mpg or how many passengers to divide it among. Figures for a train journey should surely be different if it's a packed rushour train compared to a late afternoon one with only half a dozen of you on board.

Then there's the problem of just counting the number of trees planted. Some offset projects have been buying land that's cheap, clearing existing mixed woodland trees and replacing them with their monoculture plantations.

Whilst all these things are true, they only show why offsets are clumsy and ineffective.

There is a bigger more disturbing truth, that paying for offsets lets us think we can carry on with our unsustainable high consumption, and were we to face the facts that offsets don't really work, we would be forced to concede the reduction on emissions so urgently needed.

Corporate Watch's characteristically excellent article explains:

Planting trees and energy efficiency are important things to do in themselves, but the trouble with linking them to offset programmes is that their positive impact is cancelled out by justifying and condoning a negative one, implying that we can consume at current rates guilt free as long as we have the money to salve our consciences, which takes us no further forwards in reducing emissions. If anything, it takes us backwards, as corporations are able to ride on the image boost of appearing greener, whereas the truth of the matter is that they are a complete fraud.

Not just ineffective or counterproductive but 'a complete fraud'? This is where we hit the biggest and most disturbing truth. You can't offset carbon emissions.

Burning fossil fuels adds CO2 to the carbon cycle. Trees merely store some of it for a while before releasing it once they rot or burn. They're not an offset, merely a delaying device.

As Oliver Rackham said, it's like drinking more water to keep down rising sea levels.

The wish to avoid actually changing the things we've come to rely on is understandable, but it's effectively a blindfold we're putting on to tell ourselves we're not facing what's in front of us as we walk toward the cliff edge.

The reader response to The Independent also featured incredulity at environmentalists wanting to ban damaging activity.

Do they really expect ordinary people to subscribe to the notion of... "punishing those who damage the environment"?

Given that 'the environment' means the single system we have for survival, I'd answer yes.

And it should include mandatory measures. If I saw a line of sick babies in incubators and somebody was trying to inject poison into their oxygen supply, yes I'd want to force them to stop.

The welfare of future generations of people and other species lies in our hands and we're poisoning their fundamental essential prerequisites for survival. If it's not right to poison people and take away their food and water today it's not right to do it to them tomorrow. We should not respect anyone's claim to a right to do so, we should be tackling them head on and if they won't respond to appeals to their common humanity then they should certainly have their toys taken off them.

If only it were their own future they were fucking up. Again I see the curse of our allotted three score years and ten. Were we to live for several centuries then averting the worst effects of climate change would be our top priority.


Ryan said...

Your argument about carbon offsetes being a complete fraud doesn't apply at all to non-tree-planting carbon offsets.

Most of the schemes Climate Care run, for example, are related to projects like
- energy efficient stoves for communities in honduras and eslewhere in the developing world. The women have to travel less often to collect firewood, and they give off less smoke causeing less respiritary problems.
- schemes which get people to generate gas from cattle dung other fun stuff in areas where they had perviously been taking wood from tigers habitats. This helps preserve the tiger habitat and provides for clean gas generation.

These have human benefits as well as carbon benefits. Better to reduce emmissions, yes, but where carbon offsets are beneficial (and where the company offering them aren't a bunch of charlatains), lets do them and cut carbon as well.

I don't work for climate care by the way.

merrick said...


"Your argument about carbon offsetes being a complete fraud doesn't apply at all to non-tree-planting carbon offsets."

You're right - the piece is about trees as carbon sinks, not about carbon offsets per se, and treeplanting is a complete fraud as it confuses adding fossil carbon to the cycle with temporarily storing it as trees.

Other projects are not necessarily a complete fraud. They are only primarily a fraud.

The projects you mention certainly sound very worthwhile in themselves, but in selling them as 'offsets' they are a way of deceiving ourselves into thinking we can carry on with our overconsuming lifestyle and pay for other things to redress the balance.

Such projects are inequitable. They let those who have the money - those who, broadly speaking, are rich because they have done the most damage - continue in excessive and largely frivolous unsustainable consumption with a clear conscience.

As you say, we need to reduce emissions. Introducing schemes that let people think they can carry on without reducing their emissions isn't really a good tool for that job.

The fact is that we need to be setting up these other projects *and* reining in overconsumption.

Offsetters like Climate Care are clearly fraudulent, for all the reasons I said in the post:

- You cannot tell how many stoves or whatever equal your emissions.

- Your emissions happen now. A ton saved today is very different to a ton saved over a few years. If we keep offsetting a day's emissions over a period of years, we can never catch up. So, if it is to be a real offset, it'd have to save the emissions in the same timeframe as they're released.

An example on that last point. A return flight from London to Malaga emits around 0.25 tonnes of CO2. Factor in the exacerbating effects of planes emitting at altitude, that's the equivalent of 0.75 tonnes. Let's say we want to offset it by giving Climate Care money for one of their schemes to dish out low-energy light bulbs in poor areas of South Africa. To offset that 0.75 tonnes in the two hours flight time, that'd be about 70,000 low-energy light bulbs. I'm willing to bet my bollocks nobody's paid Climate Care on that scale.

Climate Care, incidentally, estimate the emissions as 0.38 tonnes and ask for £2.81 to cover the offsets. Which I estimate would buy the planting of just under half a sapling.

They explain that they keep the numbers down by assuming full seat occupancy and only multiply by 2.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly give a number of 2.7. And obviously, many planes do not have full occupancy. I remember during the construction of Manchester Airport's second runway, Manchester Airport plc estimated that around 30% of seats took off empty.

So beyond the fraudulence of instant emissions vs long term offsets, we have blatant fraudulence in the calcultations.

Why would Climate Care do such a thing, unless they wanted you to think you weren't doing as much damage as you really are?

- Offsets are used as PR by the emitters, encouraging a belief that they're responsible and heading off any moves to make them stop what they're doing and pay the real cost.

But Climate Care declared their 2004 Annual Report, "we should not worry about the motivation of our clients". They know it's an issue, they just don't think it matters if they're used as PR greenwash that gives false legitimacy to the worst climate criminals.

Just like the way 'corporate social responsibility' is a smokescreen thrown up by the most anti-social corporations, so we should look at the practices of Climate Care's clients. Shell! BP! British Gas! British Airways! God, it'd make a rather vulgar and heavy-handed satire if it weren't the actuality of what Climate Care do.

British Airways want more runways, more flights, more emissions. This is completely at odds with what anyone concerned about climate change wants. Offsets let them deflect criticism without having to do anything.

BA even have the cheek to say the passenger should opt to pay! If I ran a paint factory and tipped my toxic waste into a river, would it be acceptable to ask customers if they wanted to pay for the clean up? Or, more exactly, if they wanted to pay to clean a bit of another river somewhere else while I just carry on?

And all this ignores the way the scheme doesn't make any systemic changes, or even make sure it works properly. In the Climate Care's Cape Town lightbulb example, broken bulbs were reported but went unreplaced, and the household buys incandescents to replace them. No savings there then, despite what the offset donor proudly proclaims. (More about that stuff here)

There is no sustainable way to carry on burning coal or having passenger aviation, no matter how many efficient stoves a holidaymaker buys.

Climate Care, whatever they say or think they're doing, are a key part of the despicable greenwash industry that says otherwise and delays any move to make the climate criminals act responsibly. The complacency they encourage, compounded by the fraudulent methods of calculating the offsetting, undoubtedly does far more harm than good.

GreenTopaz said...

You can get Free Carbon Offsets here:

merrick said...

Greentopaz, I genuinely can't tell if that site is a joke or not.

It explains

We take the conservation steps so you don't have to. After obtaining your certificate of Carbon Offsets from us, you can proudly display it for all to see, to show others that you care about our environment. You can continue on in your daily life worry and guilt free.

Surely the whole point of offsets is they're not free, that the polluter pays in the (mistaken) belief that they will mitigate their emissions.

And what offsets are offered at Efficient stoves, low-energy lightbulbs? Even less effective treeplanting?

No. 'We' (it doesn't say how many people that is) will 'think about' or 'consider' using less resources, or - my favourite - 'think about possibly using one less square of toilet paper'.

As these things are so obviously negligable and there's no quantifying what they might offset, the site is clearly nonsense.

But that doesn't tell us whether it's intentional nonsense or not.

There are two sponsored links. one is for an online certificate maker - why do I suspect that the link is a condition of the 'beautiful certificates' available for the offsets?

The other's for a 'diabetes wristband'. Like the free offset site, it asks for donations of money. It doesn't say how the donations are going to affect anything.

So, my best guess: the free offset site and the diabetes site are both done by the same person as a way for them to fleece cash from others who want to be seen to be concerned.

GreenTopaz said...


It seems to me that the site is intentional nonsense. The links page points to several anti man-made global warming sites, so they must think carbon offsets are a joke.

As for the diabetes bracelet site, you are getting a product for your money, and it also says "Your purchase will support some of our favorite organizations involved in diabetes research". It seems to me the donations would affect the pursuit of a cure for diabetes.

merrick said...


I'm not so sure. Linking to denialist sites doesn't mean they're not offering the 'service' of free offsets. Perhaps they just want to take money from those who do believe in anthropogenic climate change (free offsets, but also soliciting donations).

The diabetes site does claim to support some organisations. It doesn't say which ones. As such, it's unverifiable and seems another attempt at fleecing the reader.

It would be very odd for one to be a subtle piece of irony but another to be a genuine attempt to raise charitable money. Both are done in a broad-brush and low-on=specifics style.

i stick by my assertion that they're likely both badly done scams.

Lonewarrior said...

This whole man made Global Warming fiacso is a fraud period.

merrick said...

Lonewarrior, can you give me any - any - evidence of this?

and first, can you answer these four questions:

1. Does the atmosphere contain carbon dioxide?

2. Does atmospheric carbon dioxide influence global temperatures?

3. Will that influence be enhanced by the addition of more carbon dioxide?

4. Have human activities led to a net emission of carbon dioxide?

Anonymous said...

Wake-up people! Put your brains back in your head and realize how rediculous this is. This climate change notion is just another Y2K bug. Its just ment to scare the hell out of you. It depends on which scientist you talk to on wether there is climate change or not. Some say "yes" others say "no". You people are why gas prices are so high. Economic geniuses say that in 50 yrs 85% of the US energy will be supplied by oil. You arent going to change this. You can shut-up and get everyone to shut-up and be prodrilling and our gas prices will drop. WAKE-UP!!!!!

merrick said...


This climate change notion is just another Y2K bug.

The Y2K bug was a possible problem that might have been coming to us. Climate change, however, is here.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change started forecasting 15 years ago; the changes of the last few years are in line with what they said would probably happen.

It's very simple; the atmosphere contains gases that trap some of the sun's energy and keep us warm. If you have more of those gases, the earth gets warmer. Which bit of that do you disagree with?

It depends on which scientist you talk to on wether there is climate change or not.

Over 99% of climatologists are on one side.

Find me a - really, one will do - peer-reviewed scientific paper that says there isn't climate change.

You people are why gas prices are so high.

Er, no we're not. Gas prices are so high because the demand:supply ratio is changing. It's a simple law of economics in a free market.

If there's too many peopole and not enough stuff, it goes to the highest bidder.

Why that's happening is either because the oil-producers are refusing to supply more so they can make more profit, or because they cannot supply more and the world is peaking its oil supply.

Believe whichever of those you like, but if you're going to bring in something from outside (whether it be a belief in climate change, a liking of cornflakes or some other unrelated factor) I'm afraid you've got to supply some evidence or reasoning if you're hoping to avoid look foolish.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the really productive and informative article. Your debating in the thread is also first class deductive reasoning.

I've just been searching for statements that carbon offsets don't work, and I'm appalled by how few they are. The fact that blogspot blogs came up in the first page of Google searches just seem to show how little-known this critical fact is.

This is very worrying. People must be informed about this in every possible manner. I know that some science magazines have mentioned it before but it needs to get to the layman. The climage change sceptics who posted earlier in this thread would have even less to stand on if the entire media got hold of this fact and put it out. But the mass media likes debate and controversy too much, it seems, and has too many cartels with coal and oil companies for that to occur too powerfully.

Once again, thank you for putting this point out there. It needs more limelight.

merrick said...

Anonymous, I have written a couple of other posts about carbon offsets that may be useful.

Climate Ba-stewards


New Offset Opportunities