Creating global prosperity without economic growth

Resetting, Not Offsetting

by Janet Newbury, Sharon Ede and Joshua Nelson on 26th February 2012

Print Friendly

Windmills

We have been having some animated conversations among us at PGI regarding the topic of carbon offsetting (aka ‘carbon neutrality’).

On the one hand, we aim to be as transparent as possible about our successes and shortcomings when it comes to our own consumption patterns.  Some individuals and organizations are using the calculation and offsetting of carbon usage as a way of doing that.

On the other hand, we see offsetting as deeply nested within the growth model.  As such, not only do some of us believe the popularity of offsetting will not bring us closer to post growth realities – there seems to be plenty of evidence so far that it will in fact move us farther from them.

Before getting into the details, how about a few stories?

Once upon a time …

  1. … there was a guy who was becoming increasingly conscious of his impact on the world that sustains him.  He began to think more deeply about the things he does that damage the delicate balances required for that world to thrive.  He started riding his bike to work.  He chose to holiday closer to home.  He enjoyed growing and preparing local food.  One day, his friend invited him to go on a back-country adventure in a 4×4.  He thought about it, and asked some very deliberate questions about how much fuel might be consumed on such a trip.  He decided to look into ways to offset it, so that he could enjoy the 4×4 trip, knowing he was simultaneously contributing to a good cause.
  2. … there was a vending company that  supplied schools all across the country with sugar- and chemical-laden beverages that come in single use containers.  This company decided to become ‘carbon neutral’ as an innovative way to market itself.  Brilliant!  From that point forward, all of the delivery trucks could proudly display signs that this was a ‘socially responsible’ company.  Business flourished, and all the kids in all the schools still got their sugary drinks.
  3. … there was a transport company, one of the largest in the land, which wanted to be a good role model for other ‘corporate citizens’.  Along came BP’s Global Choice fuel emissions offsetting scheme, and the opportunity just seemed perfect.  Once the transport company signed up for the challenge, its managing director publicly exclaimed: “The more kilometers we travel, the more we help Australia’s environment.”

What does offsetting actually do?

The most common understanding of the answer to this question goes something like this: By purchasing carbon credits, we are investing in activities (such as the planting of trees or adding of renewable energy instead of carbon-energy) which restore the balance of the ecosystem by facilitating the reintegration of the carbon that has been used in the burning of fossil fuels or by removing carbon-emitting that would have be placed without the offset.  So, for instance, if I take a flight (which burns fossil fuels) I can buy carbon credits (which contribute to the planting of trees) to negate the damage that otherwise would have taken place because of my flight.

However, that’s not actually how it works.

We are, in fact, dealing with two carbon pools: the active carbon pool (which moves among forests, atmosphere, and oceans, and rarely increases or decreases), and the fossil carbon pool (which is locked away in coal, oil, and gas deposits – until extracted, that is).  When fossil fuels are used, carbon is being irreversibly shifted from the fossil to the active carbon pool.

Trees don’t store carbon in the lock-tight manner of the fossil carbon pool: forest fires, timber harvesting, disease, decay, and other processes keep this carbon active. And planting trees is not a benign activity either – not at this rate.  The demand that is now emerging for large-scale tree plantations is being resisted by many who are most effected by the trend.  Indigenous peoples and other communities that rely on forests in areas where these plantations are being developed are facing loss of land, and increased violence and disputes.

Similarly, the ocean, which also acts as carbon sink, can only absorb so much before its ability to keep absorbing increasing amounts of CO2 diminishes. Offset or not, the use of fossil fuels permanently adds otherwise inert carbon into the active pool. To further complicate the issue, the warming-climate fuelled melting of permafrost and release of previously locked up carbon will release yet more significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, creating a vicious circle.

Add to this fact the likelihood, as demonstrated in the three stories above, that carbon offsetting may actually increase the consumption of fossil fuels, and it becomes clear that rather than being a solution, offsetting is a potential contributor to climate change as well. Take, for example, the fact that several large airlines are now making claims of carbon neutrality, and promoting themselves on that basis. Our carbon emissions continue to raise with increasing speed, regardless of efforts in offsetting.

It is often the communities that are most reliant on the land which are the first to experience the devastating effects of climate change. If these communities suffer from the loss of land that comes with tree plantations used for offsetting and from the emissions that come with the still increasing levels of consumption of fossil fuels, then that means these communities are doubly impacted (while others profit from it, often none the wiser to the reality).

We must also pay attention to the phenomenon that has become known as Jevon’s Paradox: History has shown us that with each technological advance that improves efficiency, consumptions rates have actually increased, not decreased, over time.  From wood, to coal, to fossil fuels, this has proven to be the case.  So for us to suddenly believe that a technological fix such as carbon offsetting will solve the issue of consumption (carbon or otherwise) once and for all, we may be naively turning a blind eye to a fairly predictable truth about ourselves.  And as the stories above indicate, increased consumption on the basis of offsetting is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

The familiar language – and practices – of reduction

Of course, we don’t need much imagination to think outside the box of offsetting.  Rather than asking how we can offset what we consume, we can go back to the tried and true practices of reducing our consumption and emissions, and eliminating what we can.

On a systemic level there are some really easy wins if there is the will to pursue them.  For example, what if we no longer permitted or facilitated boomerang trade: the exporting and importing of like goods?

Imagine if this were not longer happening:

  • 5,000 tons of toilet paper exported from the UK to Germany, but then the UK imports over 4,000 tons back again from Germany
  • 22,000 tons of potatoes imported from Egypt to UK and then the UK exports 27,000 tons back to Egypt
  • 4,400 tons of ice cream gets exported from the UK to Italy, and 4,200 tons is then imported back
  • 116 tons of ‘sweet biscuits, waffles and wafers, gingerbread and the like’ goes into the UK, rumbling past 106 tons headed in the opposite direction

And what about altering the food production and distribution processes that contribute to the hideous waste of food that is an accepted feature of globalization?  Or doing away with the rise in disposable plastic products in the name of efficiency and convenience?

These shifts do not require complicated systems of design and distribution, or new technologies yet to be discovered.  They simply require political will which is at the moment directed elsewhere, because of our collective obsession with growth and the belief that it is worth the damages caused by these and other practices.

On a personal level, we can also make deliberate choices about what carbon usage is responsible, and what we might be better off doing without.  Sounds easy, right?

It’s not.

This means, of course, that we can’t appease our guilt by offsetting on Sunday morning and consuming again for the rest of the week.  It means we will all face charges of hypocrisy while we fumble towards more gentle ways of living.  And it means being gentle with ourselves and each other as well, knowing that we live in the very conditions we are striving to transcend, and we are all going about it imperfectly.

But with that in mind, it means we can start from wherever we are.  We don’t need a mathematical formula in order to participate in this collective transition.  We just need to try, share our mistakes and successes, and support one another along the way.

Image credit: kumaravel

Listen

Previous post:

Next post: