Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Climate Change: "Offsets" aren't

Since we began worrying about climate change, the market fundamentalists have pushed the idea of "offsets" rather than actual emissions reductions. There's just one atmosphere after all, so in theory it doesn't matter where the reductions are made, so you can just pay someone on the other side of the world to reduce for you. That's the theory, but like so many other market fundamentalist ideas, it just doesn't match reality. Because the reality is that almost all of these offsets are junk:

The vast majority of the environmental projects most frequently used to offset greenhouse gas emissions appear to have fundamental failings suggesting they cannot be relied upon to cut planet-heating emissions, according to a new analysis.


“The ramifications of this analysis are huge, as it points to systemic failings of the voluntary market, providing additional evidence that junk carbon credits pervade the market,” said Anuradha Mittal, director of the Oakland Institute thinktank. “We cannot afford to waste any more time on false solutions. The issues are far-reaching and pervasive, extending well beyond specific verifiers. The VCM is actively exacerbating the climate emergency.”

Which makes perfect sense. Because while a company could take a lot of time to ensure reductions were real, permanent, and additional, its just so much cheaper and more profitable to claim credits for business-as-usual stuff that was going to happen anyway, or which just shift emissions elsewhere, or which are based on pure fantasy. And its so much easier to do that when the "offsets" are in another country from the person they're being sold to. Incentives matter, and the profit incentive behind offsets points directly to them being junk all the way down. And not just junk, but potentially criminal fraud; in June the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a whistleblower alert promising bounties to whistleblowers exposing fraud in the industry, specifically focused on double-counting and false claims of emissions reductions. (In Aotearoa, businesses providing junk offsets, or claiming to be "carbon neutral" on the basis of such offsets would seem to be guilty of making a false or misleading representation to their customers; maybe the Commerce Commission should be looking into that...?)

This matters, firstly because the Paris agreement is meant to allow carbon trading, but if any of this fraud is allowed into the system in any way, then it means that everyone's "reductions" are effectively laundered and meaningless (just like Kyoto); and secondly because there's an entire international agreement - CORSIA - predicated on using these fraudulent offsets to "buy off" international aviation emissions. And that's built into NZ law through the recently passed Civil Aviation Act. When that law was being passed, there was a push to require NZ airlines to use NZ ETS credit, because (provided the cap isn't raised) a ton of that actually does mean a reduction in emissions. But chickenshit Labour of course refused. The units which can be used will be specified in regulations, and in light of this report, its clear that the government will need to revisit its decision.