Carbon Offsets:  Solution or Scam?

Climate Change Environment Ideas and Issues

            Buffalo River     Years ago, visiting Uruguay, with a delegation of community and union organizers, we got a crash course in carbon offsets that were being sold on a huge forest area in this Latin American country to big global branded corporations.  The environmental nonprofit was presenting this as good for Uruguay because it supplied some money for upkeep of the forest, preventing some forms of development, but it was a headscratcher for me when I tried to understand how it was really helping reduce emissions and stopping climate change.  It seemed too much like shifting a problem from one pocket to another.  At the same time, many continue to argue that this trading of climate credits and carbon offsets have made a difference in reducing emissions.  What’s the real story?

Increasing my skepticism have been recent reports that indicate that even if some of this is positive, there is way too much fudging on the numbers.  A study on California forest carbon offsets found that it overstated total emissions reductions by 80% or more.  A 2016 EU study found that 85% of carbon offset programs were overstated.  Pretty much leave it to big polluters to pretend to be doing better and encouraging such gross exaggerations of the benefits, which, please remember, allows them to pollute more.  I also worry that environmental organizations are inadvertently encouraging this kind of scamming since their incentive is to encourage sale of the offsets.

A recent report from the Wall Street Journal also underlines the issues in the conflict between big corporations and their first world countries and Global South countries still housing huge rain forests.  Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are in fact some of these countries.  “Indonesia hosts some of the world’s largest forest-preservation carbon projects, and over the last 12 years has been the biggest supplier of forest and land management-related carbon credits in Verra, one of the two major registries tracking the sector.”  Both countries recently put the kibosh on existing projects where developers are buying the rights to their forest land and paying communities to preserve them.  Part of the issue is who gets the credit on UN climate agreements and whether or not there are not only exaggerated benefits, but also double counting, both in the country with the forests and in the country with the polluting industry.  In Indonesia, the claim is that this may be against the law and that some carbon speculating companies may be selling credits without governmental review or permission, essentially ceding control of a national resource to these outfits.  Some enviros are even arguing there are problems because these private deals don’t stop deforestation as much as they simply create pockets of protection.

Maybe it’s better than nothing, but too much of this seems like unregulated neoliberalism with companies being allowed to pollute by exploiting others.  That’s not about climate, but about resisting change.  We need real solutions that work for everyone not play pretend that benefits no one but the ones causing the problems.