Carbon Offsetting

A system by which individuals and organisations arrange for part or all of their emissions of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) to be offset—reduced to net zero—by paying someone else to reduce or absorb emissions by the same amount.

The value of carbon offsetting as a response to climate change is debated. It is criticised on the grounds that it does not address the fundamental task, which is to reduce our fuel-dependency and carbon emissions and to work with others to the same end—that is, to achieve the energy descent. On the contrary, carbon offsetting eases consciences and reduces the pressure to do anything about your own uses of fossil fuels. And the usefulness of the system is also impaired by poor practice in the way in which it is applied. For instance, tree-planting may qualify for payment under a carbon offsetting scheme, but the planting process itself releases carbon, and the trees will in due course release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere when they are felled and turned into paper or used as fuel, so it is impossible to make sensible estimates of the carbon absorbed. In any case, estimates are so varied and inaccurate that matching them to the known quantities of energy/emissions saved sits more comfortably in the world of the casino than of physics.C23

And carbon offsetting is open to fraud. Companies may cite, as an “offset”, efficiency improvements in their operations which they were already planning to implement, qualifying for credit for something that they would have done anyway. And when a large company proposes a scheme—such as a large new dam—the canny way forward is to commission a report proposing projects which plausibly justify and write off the environmental impact of its main project. Such projects may include undertakings not to destroy another natural asset (which they had no plans to destroy, yet). Skill is channelled into presentation and fudge, rather than into the thinking needed to make radical decisions.C24

On the other hand, a search for a system without flaws could take some time. Meanwhile, carbon offsetting has the case in its favour that it does provide energy users at least with an incentive to think about their energy use; and that it can apply the funds generated to opportunities for carbon reduction that may be more cost-effective than anything available to the donor. For example, suppose the energy user (the donor) has the choice between spending the money herself (on a solar hot water panel, or a more efficient car, or on moving home to be nearer her place of work) or contributing the money for another, more cost-effective, purpose. That other purpose could be:

• to provide efficient cooking stoves in Gambia, which greatly reduce the amount of wood needed to make a meal; or

• to help to pay for political action to steer government decision-making away from actions such as draining the central Borneo swamp forest and turning it into a giant rice paddy, destroying the wilderness and the carbon sink, and so releasing in one year carbon equal to almost half that released from all uses of fossil fuels (and then discovering that it would not even work as a rice paddy). Just a five percent chance of forestalling such an event would make your money work hard in terms of expected results.C25

Offsetting broadens the range of choice and projects available for tackling carbon emissions. It may provide an incentive for energy users to make careful and accurate assessments of the opportunities available to them for achieving reductions. And it provides an incentive to think about energy-using options in a constructive way.

And yet, it is no substitute for direct personal commitment by consumers, firms and government to actual reductions in their own dependency on fossil fuels. Carbon offsetting may weaken the incentive to put one’s own energy/carbon house in order, because it presents the option of buying-off a bad conscience. If we were serious about reducing carbon emissions, we would establish TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas), while maintaining maximum worldwide cooperation in the common task. Encouraging others to try harder is persuasive if you are doing all you can yourself.C26


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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