Honestly, I’m pretty late to the whole offsets thing. People in the climate movement have been writing about it for a while now. But I have only really recently delved into it, and holy hell, has my mind been blown. It is a fundamentally absurd system that has settled and calcified into being accepted as normality. It isn’t just absurd, though. I think it’s clear now that it is actively destructive.
What follows is a list of examples of companies or people deciding to buy their way out of strong, immediate climate action. They purchase “carbon offsets”, services that claim to either physically (by removing carbon) or morally (by paying someone else to be less bad) neutralise the act of emitting greenhouse gases and causing climate change.
Carbon offsets have often be touted as limited to “hard to abate” things, like cement production, but in reality they’re used to justify continued or worsened emissions from essentially any activity, no matter how wasteful, avoidable or egregious.
Often, the defense is “It’s a start!” and/or “something is better than nothing!”. The thing is, the unstoppable and growing availability of offsets means companies are avoiding taking real actions in favour of cheap permission-slips. That is to say; it’s often worse than nothing. I elaborate underneath the hall of shame, in an explanation section at the bottom.
I hope you enjoy some examples of awful use-cases for offsets that I’ve been informally collecting over the past few months. You should feel free to submit examples to me, specifically on the ‘demand side’, rather than the supply side, on Twitter or email. I’ll update this list as I find more and more of these.
Anyway……………………………welcome to offsetting hell! It sucks so much here!
Offsets for car loans
So this is a relatively well-respected bank in Australia, who do have some decent climate plans and policies, offering to use carbon offsets so you can buy a new combustion engine vehicle without guilt. Obviously, combustion engines are not “hard to abate”. Trips can be replaced with electric public transport, active transport, or electric vehicles.Thankfully, the bank recently announced they’re ending all loans for fossil cars by 2025 (obviously due to the raw power of my tweets).
Offsets for literal fossil fuels
Part of the sub-trend within offsets of selling “carbon neutral [fossil fuel]”, Ampol are patting themselves on the back for buying up a bunch of offsets for their fossil fuel products, instead of actually using their incredible lobbying power to push for rapid electrification.
The scourge of “carbon neutral” fossil fuels is steadily getting worse every month. It’s maddening.
- Shell letting customers offsets their petrol emissions for two cents a litre
- British Petroleum selling “carbon offset LNG”
- A “net zero” fossil fuelled power station that’s just a fossil- fuelled power station plastered with offsets
- Origin Energy’s “green gas” nonsense
Offsets for advertising
Not content with destroying outdoor spaces using gigantic displays of visual pollution, they also consume large volumes of electrical power, helping a fossil fuelled system. Instead of using their significant lobbying and political power as a massive company to argue for systemic change, they just absolve themselves of their sins using offsets.
I asked this advertising company if they have any fossil fuel clients and weirdly didn’t get a response. Maybe they just forgot 🙂
In the advertising theme, here’s another big company showing off proudly that they’re buying up cheap certificates instead of actually reducing their climate footprint.
The amazing Polly Hemming has done the numbers on this:
Offsets for NFTs of pictures of planes
So, I’m sorry, there isn’t much more to this than the heading. Qantas, Australia’s biggest airline by a decent margin, has bought up a bunch of offsets to morally absolve themselves of doing one of the most ridiculously stupid and wasteful things that’s floating around corporate culture at the moment: screwing around with NFTs.
Airlines love offsets more than most other industries. They’d be right to say there’s no technological alternative for airline travel, but they’re also the people aggressively using advertising, frequent flyer schemes and lobbying to maximise the amount that people fly on fossil-fuelled planes, so it’s fair to say they’re not really doing the right thing.
Offsets for jpegs of tennis balls
Yeah, sorry, another NFT one. Every single NFT project that’s being greenwashed through offsets – and there’s a lot of them – falls into the header of ‘absurd use case’, but I have to highlight this one, because it’s just such a grimly amusing example of a societally useless activity that’s dipping into the unlimited magic supply of offsets.
Related: in 2021, the Australian Open took on massive gas company Santos as a sponsor, but thankfully dropped them this year.
Offsets for killing people
It’s emissions intensive work, manufacturing an addictive product that serves no material purpose other than to extract cash from increasingly sicker people before they’re murdered by the product. Australia has a massive government infrastructure for ensuring companies have cheap and easy access to whatever offsets they want, no matter what they want them for, and this particular form of corpse capitalism is no exception.
Here’s the very proud announcement of British American Tobacco joining Australia’s “Climate Active” scheme. Climate Active got embarassed about this and deleted the page, but didn’t revoke the certification for BAT, which
When we say that there are a lot of people trying desperately to expand the mis-use of offsets when we know for sure we should be reigining them in, this is kinda the stuff we mean.
Also see: “Vuse”, a vape brand that BAT proudly tout as “the world’s first carbon neutral vape”. They’re buying up reforestation offsets.
This is complicated, because there is a close and ever-closening relationship between the world of crypto and the world offsetting. They’re both rapidly inflating bubbles based on extremely false pretences, cultures of extreme credulity and hype, and a strong culture of enforced ignorance of massive internal problems.
For this though, here’s a simple sub-component: bitcoin mining is one of the most stunningly horrifically wasteful and pointless ways you can use country-sized volumes of electrical energy, and its advocates are trying to greenwash it by buying up carbon offsets. There are many, many examples of this. One particularly horrific example is a gas plant in New York ressurected from the dead by Bitcoin miners, and justified using carbon offsets.
Offsets for fossil fuel expansion
It’s been more than one year since the International Energy Agency found that no new fossil fuel extraction projects are required if we’re to limit the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees. These projects are definitely not ‘hard to abate’ – in fact, they’re actively contributing to the problem. But that doesn’t stop extraction companies pasting offsets all over these projects, to create a false image of climate friendliness, such as this project from Australia’s Santos.
Offsets for supersonic jets
Again with the planes. But we’re not talking about day-to-day travel for average punters seeing family in other parts of the world here. We’re talking ultra-expensive, ultra-polluting supersonic planes being developed by hypey startuppy companies that have to aggressively greenwash their climate-destructive visions of the future to attract investment.
Boom Supersonic is one such company. To their (limited) credit, they seem to be moving slowly away from the cheap offsets (where people just ‘avoid’ doing climate damage) and buying up the good stuff (where machines suck carbon from the air, and that carbon is permanently stored underground, like where we got it from). They don’t seem to be willing to explain to what extent they’re doing this, but hey, it’s something right?
But this is the exact problem. The capacity for carbon removal in the world right now is miniscule. Climeworks, the company they’re partnering with, gets plenty of credit for their carefully tracked carbon removal. And I’ve previously praised them for not selling their carbon removal credits to fossil fuel companies. But it’s shocking to see them selling their carbon offsets to a company embarking on such a stunningly wasteful and pointless exercise in excess.
Offsets for luxury travel disgused as remote work
Covid is responsible for a lot of harm, including the creation of the word ‘slomad’, which is where someone works in a bunch of different countries for no reason other than ‘it’s nice to just go about the place all the time’. Feeling bad about living six months in an over-priced AirBnB and constantly flying on a plane? Don’t worry: offsets have your back.
Offsets for your breath
Fun fact: when you breath out carbon dioxide, you’re not actually contributing to climate change. That’s because the energy that gets stuffed into you comes from photosynthesis in plants, whereas the energy that gets stuffed into your car engine comes from carbon that was buried deep underground, and is now being psychotically transferred in massive volumes into the sky.
So, human breath isn’t “easy to abate” – it’s “you don’t need to bother abating it”. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop company “YepYou” from offering the sale of carbon offsets so you can neutralise the emissions from your breath. Look, I guess the result here is accidentally a form of “negative emissions”, but does it really need to happen through such severe false pretences? Featured on John Oliver’s recent ‘offsets’ segment.
The first offset ever
Thanks to Keith Alexander on Twitter for this one. The first ever offset project was put in place to justify the construction of a new coal-fired power station. Arguably, perhaps that really was ‘hard to abate’ in the late eighties, before the rise of wind and solar, but there’s still just something nice and poetic about this.
Some more information about why offsets are counterproductive
The best first place to go for a longer read on this is the Climate Social Science Network’s primer on net zero and carbon offsetting, which you can find here. I’ll quote it a bit, below.
Carbon offsets are a problem, but they’re also commonplace. They’re a service you can buy to try and cancel out some greenhouse gas you caused the release of. You catch a flight, and you want to morally absolve yourself of the associated climate change it caused – so you tick an ‘offset my flight’ box when booking your tickets.
A small fraction purportedly remove carbon from the atmosphere. Nearly all of that 5% to 10% do so using vegetation, that sucks carbon from the air through respiration. But you cannot take billions of tonnes of carbon from deep underground and expect to store it in the thin, fragile film of plant matter above ground. There’s not enough space, and that life often gets bulldozed by people or burned down in worsening wildfires (sometimes lit by the company selling the offsets). The time that carbon lingers in the air before it’s re-sucked by trees results in un-cancelled-out harm. And again, fraud and deception are rife in this system of planting new trees to actively remove carbon.
For more permanent carbon removal, like companies that suck carbon from the air, solidify or liquify it and then literally just place it underground, it’s certainly a lot better than temporary storage in trees. But it’s prohibitively expensive, energy intensive and very unclear in terms of future pathways. Will ‘direct air capture’ end up like renewable energy (good) or CCS (bad)?
Most offsets you buy aren’t canceling out your addition by sucking carbon from the atmosphere. 90% to 95% simply fund someone else avoiding greenhouse gas emissions (like building a wind farm, or not chopping down a forest that was destined to be chopped down). The principle is absurd, like paying a murderer to avoid one murder, to cancel out a murder you just did. The reality is worse, because the bulk of promised avoidance is fraudulent, such as trees that were never under threat sold as carbon credits because owners lie and say they were under threat.
These offsets – “avoided emissions” offsets – do not stop climate change. The very best case scenario, in which no one in this process has lied about what they originally intended to do, is one in which greenhouse gases still get added into the atmosphere, but at a slightly slower rate than before. “While these offsets currently make up the vast majority of offsets available on international carbon markets, they cannot help achieve net zero goals”, write the CSSN, in the report above.
You’re starting to get an idea of the shape of this problem, right? This isn’t an okay-ish system with a few flaws. This is a system that is broken at every single resolution. Zoom in to a single pixel, and it’s broken. Zoom out to the big picture, and it’s broken. It’s fractal.
But one problem I keep seeing that hasn’t really been addressed or examined in sufficient detail is the demand side of offsets. That is, apart from the problems pervading the companies creating them, who buys them? How are they used, and marketed? And what impact does their purchase have on the emissions reductions trajectories of the companies that buy them?
Oh, you don’t like offsets? Why do you hate brown people?
I am, of course, not the first person to criticise carbon offsetting. And increasingly, the people and companies who benefit from this system are fighting back with a rigorous defence. One line that often comes up is that the money that a company pays to buy offsets goes towards good causes. And often, it really does – building renewable energy, effiency, protecting existing natural areas and creating new, protected natural areas. The money often flows to Indigenous people from various parts of the world, to farmers, to rural communities.
This where it gets pretty grim. The harm – delayed emissions reductions through dodgy offsets – becomes directly coupled with good. Marginalised communities become reliant on ill-gotten greenwashing cash. They have hostages: efforts to fix this problem can often mean ending the flow of cash to these already-vulnerable people and communities. This gets described as “co-benefits”, but largely, the beneficiaries of unregulated carbon markets are big trading firms and corporate players.
There’s a nice example of this sentiment in a LinkedIn post by Rich Gilmore, CEO at “Carbon Growth Partners” (I don’t think it’s meant that way, but it works).
Carbon Growth partners have proposed something truly incredible. Gilmore suggests “inverting” the mitigation hierarchy, so instead of saving offsets for only the ‘hard to abate’ sectors and focusing on real emissions reductions first, companies should offset everything first. The justification: it’s the only possible way the world’s poorest can access climate cash.
According to Gilmore, those calling for offsets to be used as a last resort are “a noisy majority that too many people take seriously” (last year, Gilmore compared offsets to Bitcoin mining, and I agree fully with him there)
It’s worth explaining exactly why a view like this is so stunning, and so toxic (apart from the incredibly white, colonial way that it uses mountains of cash to turn brown people into human shields for massive for-profit carbon traders).
It’s relatively uncontroversial to state that a whole swathe of companies around the world are buying up offsets explicitly as a way of avoiding making any material changes to their business, and actually reducing their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions.
As I mentioned above, offsets have often been presented as only being needed for “hard to abate” sectors, such as concrete manufacturing or agriculture. But in reality, they’re often used for easy to abate sectors, like electricity and transport. That is to say: it doesn’t matter what the mitigation hierarchy is. We’re already following Rich Gilmore’s version, no matter what companies insist.
The deeper problem here is how loaded the term ‘hard’ is. Of course it’s hard for a company like Shell to decide to stop selling the cause of climate change.
CSSN addresses this, too. “A key argument justifying the use of removal offsets hinges on the need to compensate for so-called ‘hard-to-abate’, ‘unavoidable’ or ‘residual’ emissions. In practice however, there are no clear definitions or standards specifying what emissions fall under this category”. As they point out, companies love the foggy haze they can operate in, for this space. Consider this stunningly frustrating fossil fuel power station in Australia I wrote about, which describes 85% of its total operational emissions as “residual”. No: this power plant isn’t hard to abate. It doesn’t need to exist at all – its function can be performed by non-emitting technologies reliably and cheaply. But nope: it gets presented as a “net zero” gas power plant!
I think it’s this exact dynamic that’s the root cause of the counter-active power of offsets. This a demand-side problem. I’m interested in whether offsets sellers have any criteria about who they sell to, and whether companies that buy them have any boundaries on their rationale for doing so.
The hazy alternative-universe thinking of ‘avoided emissions’ accounting discussed above is only applied very selectively. If it were applied broadly, you’d have to also count all of the potential emissions reductions that could have happened at a company, if it didn’t have ready access to an infinite well of cheap, suspicious offset certificates.
This is something we can call “unavoided emissions” – the cultural and decision-making damage done by the offsetting economy. The presence of a deep gravity well sucking in even well-meaning folks into a state of stagnation, from which they have no idea how to climb out of.
I think the dynamic of unavoided emissions is a big part of why we both see a record number of new corporate net zero targets, but also record global greenhouse gas emissions. I think this explains why there is a stunning gap between what’s promised, and what’s playing out. The space of that gap is the difference between life and death; between species going extinct or lingering, between safety and harm. The potential damage of empty promise is something I feel like I have personally failed to properly communicate. If carbon traders feel comfortable advocating for a huge explosion in offsetting, then yeah, something is going wrong.
But hey, I hope this post has helped 🙂