Offsetting has ‘very limited role’

The Green Party’s principal speaker Dr Derek Wall outlines the party’s views on carbon offsetting, and tells any carbon offsetting scheme must be thoroughly regulated.

Carbon offsetting is big business. As more and more of us, both individually and in business, seek to cut our personal contribution to climate change, and therefore the greenhouse gas emissions for which we are responsible, a whole industry has sprung up enabling us to pay to cut someone else’s to make up for them. But are such schemes a useful tool in the ever-more-urgent fight against climate change, or are they little more than so much hot air?.

Carbon offset sounds promising but the Green Party is critical of how it works in practice. We would echo many of the criticisms of the Durban group, which suggest that the framework within which present policy works is both ineffective and biased toward the interests of elite groups.

First, some schemes are simply fraudulent and are at best based on dubious accounting. For example, if you fly carbon is emitted today but by planting a tree is absorbed over decades (and released if the tree dies). Strong legislation is needed to make sure that carbon is actually off set, often it is not.

Second, some schemes involving taking land out of the hands of local people in developing countries who often practice a low carbon and ecologically sensitive lifestyle. Plantar SA in Brazil have received and Chris Lang has produced evidence of abuse of local people for carbon offset in Uganda.

Third, it allows the relatively prosperous to continue polluting while shifting the burden on to poorer citizens. It reduces guilt without tackling the fundamental problem of moving to a low carbon economy.

Using carbon offset as part of the calculations for carbon reduction nationally is particularly problematic. We need to cut carbon not continue producing it. Carbon offset can be related to the weakness inherent in the Stern approach which while based on good intentions, fails to look at the need for structural change and tends to ignore the political context necessary for meaningful action.

It is important to change structures, creating cheap accessible public transport, renewable energy and investing in local services so that citizens can realistically reduce their energy consumption with the least pain. Obviously a moratorium on road building and airport expansion is vital.

Part of the battle against climate change is about maintaining and extending viable carbon sinks, so rainforests and forestry in general must be conserved. Plantar SA plans to plant thousands of acres of monoculture eucalyptus as a Kyoto agreement carbon offset scheme is an example of how carbon offset schemes can damage the environment.

Action against the enclosure and destruction of such habitats is vital, research, notably Ostrom and Cornerhouse, suggests they are best preserved by local communities who have developed ecologically sustainable economic systems. These communities are under great pressure and have been ignored almost totally in discussions of tackling climate change. Typically in West Papua, thousands of acres of rainforest are being logged to make way for palm oil plantations, accelerating climate change, yet the UK and other major players in the international community put little pressure on Indonesia whose invasion in the 1970s has killed many thousands of Papuans and has had an appalling impact on the environment. The Papua example can be multiplied by very many others.

In summary the Green Party argues that Carbon offset schemes have a very limited role, that they must be regulated, they must not be used as way of evading UK national targets. Structural change to progress carbon neutrality is vital but is missing from the policy debate. The need to preserve carbon sinks demand swift and integrated policy action including support for rainforest protection and that of other vital habitats.

Carbon offset must not act as compensatory device for avoiding the change necessary to prevent runaway climate change.