The Carbon Neutral Myth

Carbon Trade Watch is monitoring the corruption of the climate change debate by the carbon offset industry particularly by tree planting. The Carbon Neutral Myth highlights several ways in which the carbon offset approach to climate change is fundamentally flawed. See carbon_neutral_myth.pdf to read the full story. Summary From the late Middle Ages, Western Europe became slowly but surely engulfed by the tide of mercantilism that superceded the feudal economy. This system, which to us is second nature, was revolutionary at the time. It was, in its own way, the first wave of economic globalisation to wash over Europe. Mercantilism, simply put, is a system of economic relations in which goods purchased in one place are sold at a much higher price somewhere they are scarce. The Catholic Church, at the time suffering from a shortage of funds, decided to use the burgeoning market ethic to its own material advantage. Catholic doctrine maintains that to avoid time in Purgatory after you die, you need to expiate your sins via some sort of punishment or task that is an external manifestation of your repentance. The idea was that the clergy were doing more of such actions than their meager sins demanded, so they effectively had a surplus of good deeds. Under the logic of the emerging market, these could be sold as indulgences to sinners who had money, but not necessarily the time or inclination to repent for themselves. Chaucer’s The Pardoner's Tale immortalised the sale of such indulgences by pardoners, which was essentially how the church took a market-based approach to sinning as a means of income generation. The Brazilian theologian Dr. Odair Pedroso Mateus pointed out in 2001 that indulgences are “not about grace and gratefulness but about exchanging goods, about buying and selling, about capitalism”. Many centuries later, there are new indulgences on the market in the form of carbon offsets. The modern-day Pardoners are companies like Climate Care, the Carbon Neutral Company, Offset My Life and many others. These selfstyled ‘eco-capitalists’ are building up what they claim are ‘good climate deeds’ through projects which supposedly reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions. These wholesale emissions reductions can then be profitably sold back at retail prices to modern-day sinners who have money, but not necessarily the time or inclination to take responsibility for their emissions, and can afford to buy the surplus ‘good deeds’ from the offset companies. Most offset schemes take the following approach. A simple calculator on a website shows the quantity of emissions produced by a certain product or activity. The customer can then choose from a variety of projects that promise to ‘neutralise’ an equivalent amount of emissions by energy-saving, or through carbon absorption in trees. The consumer pays according to the claimed project costs and the amount of emissions to be ‘neutralised’. Most carbon offset companies cater to both individuals and corporations. Corporations can pay to ‘neutralise’ emissions generated by the production of consumer items or services, which can then be marketed on the basis of their climate-friendly credentials. This process has been dubbed ‘carbon branding’. The carbon offset market is booming. In the first three quarters of 2006, about EUR 89 million were sold to companies and individuals all over the world, up 300 per cent from 2005. It is predicted that the voluntary offsets market will be worth EUR 450 million in three years time. Even offset industry insiders are concerned about the lack of regulation and scrutiny of the new market.

Offsets expert Francis Sullivan, who was instrumental in HSBC's attempt to ‘neutralise’ its emissions, commented that, “there will be individuals and companies out there who think they’re doing the right thing but they're not. I am sure that people are buying offsets in this unregulated market that are not credible. I am sure there are people buying nothing more than hot air.” A report by Standard Life Investments on ‘Carbon Management & Carbon Neutrality in the FTSE All-Share’ tellingly warned that such schemes “have the capacity to disguise the failure to achieve actual reductions in overall greenhouse gas emissions.” The first chapter examines how the existence of offset schemes presents the public with an opportunity to take a ‘business as usual’ attitude to the climate change threat. Instead of encouraging individuals and institutions to profoundly change consumption patterns as well as social, economic and political structures, we are being asked to believe that paying a little extra for certain goods and services is sufficient. For example, if one is willing to pay a bit more for ‘offset petrol’ one doesn't have to worry about how much is consumed, because the price automatically includes offsetting the emissions it produces. One of the most high-profile offset companies to emerge to date is the Carbon Neutral Company, formerly known as Future Forests. Chapter two examines its history, revealing mounting criticism of its business practice and exposing how little of its income makes it to the offset projects themselves. The initial success of offset schemes was partly due to the popular idea that tree planting is inherently environmentally friendly. The third chapter criticises the scientific basis of offsetting, showing that it is not possible to equate absorption of atmospheric CO2 by trees with the fossil CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels. It also examines problems with the impermanence of carbon storage in plantations, and how hypothesising what emissions have been avoided by renewable energy projects and emissions reduction schemes amounts to little more than guesswork. The fourth chapter frames offset projects in the Majority World as a new stage in the Global North’s coercive development agenda. Three case studies - plantations in India and Uganda, and an energy efficiency project in South Africa -show how the idealised portrayal of these projects is not always matched by the reality of the situation, either in terms of their effectiveness in reducing emissions or, more importantly, of their harmful impacts upon local communities. Chapter five critically examines the use of celebrity endorsement in political environmental campaigns, which partly accounts for the enormous popularity of offsets. It includes interviews with two celebrities who have been more proactive in taking responsibility for their emissions, as well as touching on issues of climate change in their work. The final chapter addresses the issue of providing positive alternatives rather than just criticising offset schemes. It draws attention to a company that has chosen other means of putting its green credentials into practice and, looking at the example of the recent victory of women in the Ogoni tribe of Nigeria against the petrol multinational Shell, examines why the solutions to climate change need to be much more systemic, empowered and politically engaged than is permitted within the scope of carbon offsets. The sale of offset indulgences is a dead-end detour off the path of action required in the face of climate change. There is an urgent need to return to political organising for a wider, societal transition to a low carbon economy, while simultaneously taking direct responsibility for reducing our personal emissions. Offset schemes are shifting the focus of action about climate change onto lifestyles, detracting from the local participation and movement building that is critical to the realization of genuine social change. It is hoped that the rising awareness of the shortcomings of offset credits will contribute to a reformation of the climate change debate. See carbon_neutral_myth.pdf to read the full story.