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Compensate the pain away

Can carbon offsetting save us from climate change and climate adjustment?

With climate change now a generally accepted issue, the discussion has turned to how we can counteract the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the environment. While some argue that the only way to make a difference is to drastically change our way of life and how society is organized, others find the answer in innovation, allowing us to have our cake and eat it too. Electric cars, solar panels, and carbon capture have all been discussed as possible solutions. For individuals and companies, voluntary carbon compensation has been proposed as a way to maintain lifestyles without the bad conscience. But is it really that simple? Can I, ethically, pay for my emissions and then forget all about it?

Carbon offsetting, also known as carbon compensation, ranges from trading in emission allocations under emission trading systems (essentially making emissions a scarce product that becomes more expensive for companies due to increased demand) to investments in renewable energy, to perhaps the most symbolically satisfying solution: planting trees. In 2012 forestry and land used achieved 32 % of the offsetting of greenhouse gasses. The science behind using trees to trap carbon is easy to understand and even easier to promote. Basic biology has taught us that through photosynthesis, plants turn sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into cellulose, trapping the carbon until it is burnt or starts to decompose. Perhaps even more satisfying than just planting trees is the idea that carbon compensation could help developing countries, who are most likely to take the brunt of climate change which is predominantly caused by the global north.

While the intention behind all carbon offsetting is undoubtedly good, planting trees in the global south is not as simple as the sales pitch implies. Elina Andersson, postdoctoral fellow at Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies, along with Wim Carton, researcher at the same institution, have studied how private carbon offsetting, through the Trees for Global Benefit project, is carried out by farmers in the Mitooma district in Uganda. Although the project they followed was certified as efficient and ethical through Plan Vivo, the local farmers still had issues with the way it was carried out.  “One of the great issues with this project is that the possibility for the farmers to familiarize themselves with the conditions is inadequate. They don’t have a fighting chance to actually understand what it involves, how much [money] they can expect, and they don’t get enough support in the planting of the trees. What we are saying is that it creates an unequal division of costs and risk and it is mostly the farmers carrying the burden”. Like most development work, the project was carried out in a very unequal relationship between farmers and financiers.

Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World.

Carbon offsetting through projects such as this are voluntary compensation, where individuals and companies themselves choose to compensate for emissions, and 90 % of the time they are arranged through the private market. Although they emphasize the developmental benefits to the costumers, Elina Andersson thinks that is only a secondary reason for planting the trees in countries like Uganda. “It is because it is cheap. That is the entire logic in this kind of market solution. We need to reduce emissions and find a way to bind the carbon and according to the logic of the market, we do it in the most efficient and cheap way. It is cheaper to let African farmers do it”. One common critique of tree-planting in developing countries is that there has been a history of monoculture plantations and the introduction of non-native tree species which has created new environmental problems. Projects have been accused of carbon colonialism due to the way they used land needed by locals for their livelihood while also ignoring responsibilities related to the health and safety of workers. Since the rise of carbon compensation, pine and eucalyptus have become popular trees to plant as they are fast growing and efficiently absorb carbon from the air. These benefits is counteracted by issues with high consumption of water and a lack of biodiversity. While this is a valid critique, Elina Andersson points out that many of the farmers that they interviewed for their study already grew eucalyptus for private use. This means that unlike the prescribed local trees, the farmers had experience and knowledge regarding the planting and caring for eucalyptus. The trees that were incentivized by the Trees for Global Benefit project required much more care and often the farmers did not receive enough help in understanding how to take care of them. While the trees were local, they were sometimes unsuitable for the conditions of the specific farm, due to the mountainous environment in the region and different conditions of each farm.

It is worth noting that this form of carbon compensation is not the only one facing issues. The European Union emission trading system is facing internal criticism for both having flooded the market and consequently lowered prices, as well as allowing nations to compensate the companies who emit carbon and who therefore have to buy emission allocations. While there are several schemes trying to create standards to guarantee ethical and efficient offsetting in the private market, there have been cases where even the highest standard fail to live up to its promises. For example, a biomass power plant, which was supposed to help limit emissions by incinerating agricultural waste, may have led to the active clearing of forest, which was then sold and burnt instead. The entire idea of carbon offsetting is also debated with some comparing it to the old catholic idea of purchasing redemption from our sins, while not actually making a difference. Other problems with the premise of offsetting include issues of additionality, through government projects or other opportunities. It is generally difficult to prove and predict the future and to know whether these changes would eventually happen anyway.

In the end, Elina Andersson says that “personally I really believe that the idea of carbon compensation risks creating false solutions”. While capturing carbon can be combined with serious changes to the structures of society and the way that we live, the form of voluntary carbon offsetting practiced in the private market seems like an excuse to maintain the status quo. According to Elina, “that is the point of carbon compensation. We continue to do things that emit carbon and then we compensate for it, but it doesn’t change anything”.

Ebba Bergström

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