Climate Action

Why carbon offsetting doesn't cut it

The French Fire burns in the Sequoia National Forest near Lake Isabella, California, U.S. August 26, 2021.

Greenpeace says net-zero pledges that use offsets cannot replace needed reductions and fossil fuel phase-outs. Image: REUTERS/David Swanson

Jennifer Morgan
State Secretary and Special Envoy for International Climate Action, Federal Foreign Office of Germany
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How to Save the Planet

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

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  • Greenpeace supports the aim to achieve net zero by 2050, but says targets are not subject to sufficient regulation or scrutiny.
  • Greenpeace maintains net-zero pledges and offsets cannot replace needed reductions and fossil fuel phase-outs.
  • All stakeholders, from government to business to local communities and Indigenous Peoples, must work together in just and equitable ways to urgently solve the climate and biodiversity emergency.

In the run up to what needs to be the most defining climate talks since the Paris Agreement was announced amid rapturous applause and tears of relief, we are being gaslit by elites promising net zero without doing anything to reduce emissions. Big polluters, alongside governments addicted to putting profit before people and planet, are in turbocharge mode to hoodwink the public into thinking they are finally taking the climate emergency seriously.

Greenpeace supports the aim to achieve net zero globally by 2050 as mandated by science; however, we dispute the abuse of it by politicians and corporations, whose targets are not currently subject to sufficient regulation or scrutiny. Without global vigilance around net-zero pledges and offsets, they are likely to be used as greenwashing and distraction by companies that aren’t prepared to lose profits to take the action necessary to help solve the climate crisis.

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Plenty of companies – across industries from fossil fuels to meat processing – plus super-rich elites have been profiting from dirty industries for decades while wreaking havoc on communities, climate and nature, and widening the inequality gap. These polluters know their game is almost up: the green transition has to happen for the world to survive, but before it is, they want to get as much as they can.

What these polluting profiteers see as their “get-out-of-jail-free card” in the climate game is offsetting – or, to speak plainly, the heap of voluntary net-zero commitments that are being rolled out almost daily. Nothing new, offsetting is about paying for someone else to reduce or remove carbon, while you continue pumping it into the atmosphere. It’s like a smoker saying they’ve given up, but paying a healthy person for their clean lungs so they can continue puffing. Offsetting is hypocrisy, and it is swirling around more and more as COP26 approaches.

The governments and companies that produce two-thirds of the world’s economic output have pledged to cut emissions to net zero by mid-century, but very few have plans on how to do this. Most that say they do rely on carbon offsets or dubious technology. A robust and credible mechanism to certify these emissions-busting strategies is missing. So, far from taking the climate emergency seriously, it seems it is smoke and mirrors, where the worst polluters benefit.

Net-zero pledges by big polluters and biodiversity destroyers are unsurprisingly not worth the paper they are written on. Voluntary commitments and public-private partnerships do not work – just look at how few of the companies that committed to zero deforestation by 2020 actually achieved it.

Net-zero pledges that use offsets simply cannot replace needed emissions reductions and fossil fuel phase-outs. They all risk human rights transgressions and detrimentally impacting already vulnerable communities. Nature-based offsetting that relies heavily on land use in the global south risks shifting responsibility for emissions made by wealthier nations to those already struggling with the impacts of the climate crisis.

Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions worldwide from 1975 to 2021 (in billion metric tons)
Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. Image: Statista/IEA

Offsets will be at the centre of the climate negotiations this November in Glasgow when a global carbon market will be discussed. Many developing countries have made it clear that the negotiations around a carbon market, covered under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, should not be rushed just to achieve a political outcome at COP26. A global carbon market would allow the purchase and selling of offsets putting nature and Indigenous communities under excruciating pressure. No outcome on carbon offset markets under Article 6 would be acceptable to safeguard, protect and uphold human rights, especially the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Traditional communities, and to ensure environmental integrity.

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    When it comes to net zero, simple and transparent plans should be the order of the day. These strategies should have separate targets for dramatic reductions in emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial activities; land use impact, mainly from deforestation and via a reduction of meat and dairy production; and increased commitments and contributions to rights-based nature protection and restoration.

    Going further, governments need to set binding laws that hold companies accountable for their carbon-emitting activities. This could lead to corporations ­– which upon inspection of their carbon account appear to be destroying the climate – being subjected to a penalty system based on the prohibition of the payment of external dividends. Employees in share-ownership schemes would not be included, as these results are the fruit of their labour. The financial assets invested in climate-destroying economic activities would therefore rapidly lose value as the corresponding fall in share prices would turn them into “stranded assets”. And the government shareholder would be even more careful to guide companies towards carbon neutrality.

    Time is up for making voluntary commitments: influencers must proactively engage in getting the regulations with sanctions in place that lead to the decarbonization and renaturalization of our energy sector, our land-use sector and our financial sector.

    All corners of society, from government to business to local communities and Indigenous Peoples, have to work together in just and equitable ways to urgently solve the climate and biodiversity emergency. We are a part of nature, and if we protect nature, we protect ourselves. We do not protect ourselves with dangerous climate lies like offsets.

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