Carbon Offsets: More Harm Than Good?


From Coldplay to Leonardo diCaprio to Al Gore, influential environmentalists are increasingly modeling green behavior by neutralizing their carbon emissions through carbon offsets. Briefly, offsets are based on the notion that consumers can balance out carbon intensive activities, like travel, by contributing to projects that reduce greenhouse gases. Between 2005 and 2007 the market for carbon offsets grew 175%, reaching $110 million (Faris 2007). But just as buying indulgences in the Middle Ages never really erased your sins, carbon offsets rarely counteract your carbon use. Moreover, in some cases, carbon offset projects actually hurt local people. Many experts now believe that well-intentioned consumers are not just wasting their money on offsets, but that purchasing them actually does more harm than good.

How it Works

Suppose you buy airplane tickets for your family’s summer vacation on a website like Travelocity, Orbitz or Expedia. Somewhere in the process of taking your credit card information, the website will ask whether you would like to offset your trip’s carbon emissions for a nominal fee (e.g., a roundtrip flight from NYC to San Francisco = 5,142 miles = 2,455 lbs CO2 = $17.85). Or, you can offset your car rental, hotel stay and flight (a seven day cross-country trip can be offset for $5.44/day/person). You can also offset your wedding, and, if you’re feeling guilty on a daily basis, you can offset energy usage in your home, or your dorm room.

At this point, your original travel search engine will have linked you to a carbon offset company. These for-profit organizations act as brokers, channeling consumer contributions to projects that either replace atmospheric carbon (i.e., by planting trees) or promote renewable energy. Sounds promising, but is it really so easy to “zero-out” the carbon that leads global warming? The answer, unfortunately, is no.

The Trouble with Trees

Take, for example, carbon sequestration programs, which account for approximately 20% of the carbon offset market. Based on the idea that trees absorb carbon, these programs sponsor the planting of large forests designed to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For over a decade, governments and non-profit foundations in the developing world have been offering large sums of money to developing countries in exchange for tree plantations, also known as “carbon sinks”.

However scientists point out that there is a major difference between the kind of carbon emitted from the burning of fossil fuels and the kind of carbon stored by trees. “Carbon emissions from burned oil, gas or coal cannot be considered as equal to the same amount of biological carbon in a tree,” write scientists at the Forests and the European Union Resource Network (FERN 2005). Whereas in nature, carbon moves freely between forests, oceans and air, the fossil carbon pool is inert. Once out of the ground and into the air via cars, coal extraction, etc., fossil carbon joins the active carbon pool. It will not return to the fossil carbon pool for millennia. So, the carbon absorbed by trees does not zero out the carbon emitted by airplanes.

Even if the carbon were equivalent, trees are not necessarily reliable carbon storehouses. First, scientists point out that when trees burn, rot, or are chopped down, they release any carbon they have stored (Kill 2003). Second, according to ecologist Ram Oren, principal investigator on Duke University’s ongoing Free Air Carbon Enrichment project, if trees do not receive enough water or nutrients, any extra carbon they store very quickly goes back into the atmosphere (Cropping 2007). For instance, in 2002, the band Coldplay announced it would offset the environmental impact caused by the release of its second album by planting 10,000 mango trees in southern India. More precisely, Coldplay worked with CarbonNeutral, an offset company, which in turn contracted with Women for Sustainable Development, an NGO. Eventually funds went to local farmers who were supposed to plant and care for the trees. However, four years after the album's release, many of the trees had died – a drought dried the soil, and many villagers never received funding to help them maintain their trees (Dhillon and Harnden 2006).

Carbon Offsets and Human Rights Violations

The Coldplay/Carbon Neutral project left behind more than just dead mango trees. Indian villagers, who are economically marginalized to begin with, invested time and energy that could have been directed at other, more secure income-generating projects. In fact, one of the biggest problems with Carbon offset schemes, particularly forests, is their lack of attention to the lives of local people. Frequently, carbon sinks displace local populations, generating poverty, inequality, and food and water scarcity. They also drastically reduce biological diversity. In turn, the erosion of resources at every level exacerbates local conflicts (McAfee 2003). Even more seriously, some carbon offset tree plantations have become an excuse for human rights violations.

One well-known case exemplifies the violence created by offset forests. In the early 1990s, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Face Foundation, a nonprofit corporation established by Dutch power companies, launched an initiative to plant scores of trees in Mount Elgon National Park. In order to implement the project, the Ugandan government evicted thousands of local farmers. Most have been fighting to regain their land ever since.


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