Surging Market for Carbon Offsets Raises Spectre of Greenwashing
Increasingly concerned about the climate crisis and inspired by mounting youth protests, more and more consumers and businesses of all sizes are trying to reduce their climate footprints by purchasing carbon offsets—an approach that ideally directs more money to carbon reduction projects around the world, but can be fraught with controversy, complications, and greenwashing.
The last 18 months have seen a huge spike in carbon offset investments, reports The Guardian, with companies like ClimateCare, which helps large corporations offset their carbon emissions, reporting an “offset increase from about two million to 20 million tonnes in that time”.
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Smaller organizations like the non-profit Climate Stewards, which handles offsets for small businesses and individuals, are also reporting “massive spikes” in offset purchases. Climate Stewards Director Caroline Pomeroy told the Guardian that “income from individuals offsetting had increased by 156% year on year, and that there had been an 80% increase in income from businesses and charities offsetting.”
Participating in the carbon offset process, explains the Guardian, involves calculating one’s emissions, then “purchasing equivalent ‘credits’ from projects that prevent or remove the emissions of an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases elsewhere.” Sarah Leugers, communications director for the carbon offset NGO Gold Standard, described as truly “transformative” offset-supported projects “that improved access to clean water, thus reducing greenhouse gases from burning firewood to boil water,” or that delivered biogas stoves to families still cooking over open flames.
“These are life-changing for people in the developing world and have real impact on reducing carbon emissions,” she said.
But ensuring that the quest for a clean(er) conscience on emissions actually delivers those “life-changing” results isn’t easy. In August, the Guardian described the path to securing offsets that actually enable the emissions-reducing results they promise as “a minefield”.
Drawing on his own recent round trip to Malawi, Guardian correspondent John Vidal wrote that “there is no agreement on how much carbon dioxide a journey may emit, confusion about what actions best reduce emissions, a huge choice of where to direct your money, and growing cynicism as airlines, airports, and giant, carbon-greedy corporations use offsetting to sell more flights or get permission to grow even further.”
And whereas “a decade ago, the voluntary carbon offset market was tiny, unsophisticated, and largely unregulated,” today the market is huge (and growing ever larger in step with the climate crisis), dauntingly intricate—and still in significant need of regulation.
The Guardian writes that the carbon credit market, “worth possibly a few tens of millions of dollars in 2007, is now valued at over $500 million a year and growing fast.” With such growth comes a myriad of choices for potential buyers. “You can now offset rail, road, and air journeys, your stay in a holiday hotel, your daily commute, your home heating—indeed, you could offset the emissions of your whole life.”
The potential outcomes from those investments are just as varied: “You could have a forest of banana trees or avocados planted in Kenya, reduce the amount of methane emitted from an Indonesian waste dump, provide fresh water to Malawians, rewild Romania, or reforest areas of the Amazon basin, home to communities of Indigenous peoples,” The Guardian writes.
But the stupendous growth in the carbon offsets market is also a boon for emissions-intensive corporations looking to green their bottom lines—at least on paper. For example, “29 of the most fuel-profligate airlines, including Emirates, Delta, BA, Air Canada, and Gulf, now offer to offset their customers’ flights, and 15 airlines now voluntarily offset their own emissions in some capacity.”
That such moves towards good stewardship may allow London’s Heathrow Airport to claim “carbon neutrality” by 2030 and project “zero-carbon” status by 2050, even as it pushes a third runway that would enable 265,000 more flights a year, “prompts accusations that [the offset market] legitimizes the growth of emissions.”
Commenting on Heathrow’s ambitions for another runway, which would involve building “one of the world’s largest car parks and directly increase global emissions by millions of tonnes of CO2,” Green MP Caroline Lucas described the plan as “wholly disingenuous” and “taking economy with the truth to new levels”.
“Our position is that this should not be an optional or voluntary thing,” said ClimateCare CEO Edward Hanrahan. “Expecting individuals to be able to make fully informed decisions about such a specialist, complex area is madness.” So “what we want is a scenario where corporates are mandated to pay a price on carbon that reflects the societal cost of dealing with climate change and carbon emissions, and to pay for mitigating their emissions.”Meantime, writes the Guardian, “the key to gauging the large-scale projects favoured by companies is to ascertain that they are real, measurable, independently verified, and permanent, and would not have taken place without the finance provided by the sale of credits.” In Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute lay out the same set of standards in their guide to legitimate carbon offsets.
Meantime, writes the Guardian, “the key to gauging the large-scale projects favoured by companies is to ascertain that they are real, measurable, independently verified, and permanent, and would not have taken place without the finance provided by the sale of credits.” In Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute lay out the same set of standards in their guide to legitimate carbon offsets.