Carbon Offsets Don't Stop Climate Change, They Worsen It
Ma'anit, Adam, CCPA Monitor
Carbon offsets don't stop climate change, they worsen it
"For every problem there is a solution that is simple, clean, and wrong."
-H.L. Mencken (1880-1956).
When British physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in 1972 of his dream of the "greening of the galaxy"-in which humans would populate other planets by means of massive genetically modified trees placed on comets-few took him seriously. Likewise, when he advocated triggering nuclear explosions underneath space probes as a means of propulsion, most gave the idea a bemused dismissal. Dyson, however, is a tenacious thinker. When in 1977 he proposed using trees to soak up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, people took notice. Third time lucky.
The timing certainly was perfect. Scientific understanding about climate change was just beginning to arouse industry concerns that governments might soon start cracking down on corporate polluters. Seeking ways to head off this dreadful prospect-which one industry group once referred to as the "road to serfdom"-some companies started to explore ways to "offset" their emissions by using tree plantations rather than reducing pollution at the source.
It wasn't until 1989 that the first carbon offset project was launched, conceived by a U.S. power company, Applied Energy Services (AES), together with the environmental think-tank World Resources Institute, the official U.S. aid agency USAID, and the big development NGO, CARE. At the time, AES was looking for regulatory approval for a new 183-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Connecticut. It eventually got the go-ahead, thanks to its "mitigation" project in the western highlands region of Guatemala. The project entailed planting 50 million non-native pine and eucalyptus trees on some 40,000 small farm holdings in this deeply impoverished region, which in theory would "soak up" the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions expected to be generated for the lifetime of the coal-fired plant.
According to Hannah Wittman of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, the project was a dismal failure.
"What it did first and foremost," she said, "was to take access to the trees out of the hands of ordinary people."
An external evaluation revealed that subsistence activities undertaken by the largely indigenous population, such as gathering fuelwood for cooking, were now criminalized and conflicts were erupting over rights to the trees, exacerbating existing tensions over access to resources and local decision-making.
Initially, the tree species planted were largely inappropriate for the area and resulted in land degradation. The evaluators, Winrock International, concluded in 1999-10 years after the project began-that AES's offset target was falling far below the expected level. By 2001, farmers were still not receiving payments for the trees they planted and looked after, and many were not aware that these trees were being used for storing carbon for AES. These problems, however, did not prevent the company from getting approval for its coal-fired power plant.
But what some call "failure," the offset industry calls "learning by doing"-and it has been "learning by doing" ever since. What could have been regarded as another one of Dyson's wacky notions is now part of a multi-billion-dollar market that involves everyone from the world's largest transnationale, governments, the World Bank and the United Nations, down to "boutique" merchant banks, mom-and-pop offset companies, consultancies, and NGOs. The World Bank estimated the global carbon market-of which tree-planting is just one part-to be worth $11 billion at the end of 2005-10 times the value of the previous year.
Carbon is now a hot commodity-and carbon offsets have finally arrived in the public consciousness. When you take a flight or rent a car these days, chances are that the carbon emissions from that activity might already be offset or "neutralized" through some corporate scheme, or you may be given the option to neutralize them yourself. …