Carbon offsetting is not warding off environmental collapse – it’s accelerating it
There is nothing that cannot be corrupted, nothing good that cannot be transformed into something bad. And there is no clearer example than the great climate land grab.
We now know that it’s not enough to leave fossil fuels in the ground and decarbonise our economies. We’ve left it too late. To prevent no more than 1.5C of heating, we also need to draw down some of the carbon already in the atmosphere.
By far the most effective means are “nature-based solutions”: using the restoration of living systems such as forests, salt marshes, peat bogs and the seafloor to extract carbon dioxide from the air and lock it up, mostly in trees or waterlogged soil and mud. Three years ago, a small group of us launched the Natural Climate Solutions campaign to draw attention to the vast potential for stalling climate breakdown and a sixth mass extinction through the mass revival of ecosystems.
While it is hard to see either climate or ecological catastrophe being prevented without such large-scale rewilding, we warned that it should not be used as a substitute for decarbonising economic life, or to allow corporations to offset greenhouse gases that shouldn’t be produced in the first place. We found ourselves having to shed a large number of partner organisations because of their deals with offset companies.
But our warnings, and those of many others, went unheeded. Something that should be a great force for good has turned into a corporate gold rush, trading in carbon credits. A carbon credit represents one tonne of greenhouse gases, deemed to have been avoided or removed from the atmosphere. Over the past few months, the market for these credits has boomed.
There are two legitimate uses of nature-based solutions: removing historic carbon from the air, and counteracting a small residue of unavoidable emissions once we have decarbonised the rest of the economy. Instead, they are being widely used as an alternative for effective action. Rather than committing to leave fossil fuels in the ground, oil and gas firms continue to prospect for new reserves while claiming that the credits they buy have turned them “carbon neutral”.
For example, Shell’s Drive Carbon Neutral scheme tells businesses that by buying fuel on its loyalty card, the “unavoidable” emissions from their fleets of vehicles can be offset “through Shell’s global portfolio of nature-based solutions projects”. It assures customers that, by joining the programme, “you don’t even have to change the way you work”. Similar claims by Shell in the Netherlands were struck down by the country’s advertising watchdog.
The French company Total is hoping to develop new oilfields in the Republic of the Congo and off the coast of Suriname. It has sought to justify these projects with nature-based solutions: in Suriname by providing money to the government for protecting existing forests, and in Congo by planting an area of savannah with fast-growing trees.
This project is extremely controversial. If the drilling goes ahead it will help to break open a region of extremely rich forests and wetlands that sits on top of the biggest peat deposit in the tropics, potentially threatening a huge natural carbon store. The rare savannah habitat the company wants to convert into plantations to produce timber and biomass has scarcely been explored by ecologists. It’s likely to harbour a far greater range of life than the exotic trees the oil company wants to plant. It is also likely to belong to local people though their customary rights, which are unrecognised in Congolese law, were not mentioned in Total’s press release about the deal. In other words, the offset project, far from compensating for the damage caused by oil drilling, could compound it.
These are not the only issues. In all such cases, an extremely stable bank of carbon – the fossil fuels buried below geological strata – is being swapped for less secure stores: habitats on the Earth’s surface. Last year, forests being used as corporate offsets were incinerated by the wildfires raging across North America. It’s also hard in some cases to prove that offset money has made a real difference. For example, two of Shell’s projects have been criticised on the grounds that the forests they claim to defend may not be at risk. These schemes often rely on untestable counterfactuals: what would have happened if this money had not been spent?
While there are international standards for how carbon should be counted, there is no accounting for the moral hazard of carbon offsets: the false assurance that persuades us we need not change the way we live. There is no accounting for the way companies use these projects to justify business as usual. There is no accounting for how they use this greenwashing to persuade governments not to regulate them. Nature-based solutions should help us to avoid systemic environmental collapse. Instead, they are helping to accelerate it.
And then there’s a small issue of land. There is simply not enough land on Earth to soak up corporate greenhouse gas emissions. Oxfam estimates that the land required to meet carbon removal plans by businesses could amount to five times the size of India – more than the entire area of farmland on the planet. And much of it rightfully belongs to indigenous and other local people, who in many cases have not given their consent. This process has a name: carbon colonialism.
During the Cop26 climate summit in November last year, the government of the Malaysian state of Sabah announced a carbon credits deal with foreign corporations covering an astonishing 2m hectares (5m acres) of forest. Indigenous people say they knew nothing about it.
In Scotland, Shell is spending £5m extending the Glengarry forest. While Scotland needs more trees, it also needs a much better distribution of land. As big corporations and financiers pile into this market, land prices are rising so fast that local people, some of whom would like to run their own rewilding and reforestation projects, are being shut out.
A better strategy would be to spend money on strengthening the land rights of indigenous people, who tend to be the most effective guardians of ecosystems and the carbon they contain. Where communities don’t own land, they should be funded to buy it back and restore its missing habitats. But none of these projects should be counted against the fossil fuels we should leave in the ground.
Yes, we need to restore life on Earth. Yes, we need to draw down as much carbon as we can. But we cannot let this crucial tool be turned against us.
George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist
\ ‘Last year, forests being used as corporate offsets were incinerated by the wildfires raging across North America.’ Photograph: Noah Berger/EPA