Carbon offsets don’t really solve the climate problem

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– It’s important to be aware of the myths and realities of carbon offsets.
– Offsets are not a panacea.

Start with this piece from Manual Adamini that discusses this ProPublica article entitled “The Climate Solution Actually Adding Millions of Tons of CO2 Into the Atmosphere.”

Then see this note from Mark Trexler of “The Climatographers”:

Bloomberg Green published two major articles on carbon offsets yesterday. This post regards the second. I don’t know whether it’s behind a paywall, but it might be. It’s titled “Wall Street’s Favorite Climate Solution Is Mired in Disagreements.” And it starts: “Global warming is the world’s biggest market failure, so the solution might just be better trading.” Really? “Better trading” is a plausible way to solve market failures?

The article goes on to discuss the workings of the Task Force on Voluntary Markets, and summarizes the “4 key problems” facing the Task Force: 1) Who Gets to Buy Offsets 2) Will Climate Players Endorse the Rules 3) Who Governs a Voluntary Global Market and 4) What About All Those Avoided Emissions? Focused almost entirely on issues associated with market “function,” the article manages to largely avoid the whole topic of market “purpose” (climate change mitigation), and I don’t think it ever mentioned the word “additionality” once.

Yet environmental integrity is the most likely Achilles Heel of a radically expanded voluntary offset market. I pay for Bloomberg Green’s analysis – this piece makes me wonder how much of its other analysis I should trust.

Here’s an excerpt from this piece from’s Frank Sprenger entitled “What is wrong with “Carbon Neutral?”:

It took long years for these markets to gain some significance. Pioneers – endowed with stamina and conviction – created small markets with rigorous transparency and consistency. Everyone remembers atmosfair. And of course, it was a great achievement to make consumers aware of their footprint – say of their flight – and pay money to “offset” their emissions. Early on, doubts were cast regarding the actual effects of these offsets. Soon, transparent labels like the “Gold Standard” were established, verifying the projects and its reductions. However, until today, one crucial issue remains contested: the so-called “additionality”. Would those projects really not have taken place without the foreign investment? These systematic doubts remain until today, especially in the widely used field of planting trees.

Another doubt is cast on the amount of emissions to be offset. Of course, the smaller the footprint calculated, the fewer emissions to be reduced, the smaller the amount of emissions to be offset to reach zero. Consequently, a transparent calculation of a corporation’s emssions according to international standards is key. And to be sure, these calculations need to be assessed or at least verified by independent experts.

Not talking about still ongoing scientific debates of the actual footprint. In air travel, for example, companies usually just calculate the direct effects of burning kerosene, estimated at around 2.5 % of global warming. Scientists urge, however, to also take so-called radiative forcing into account, adding up to 3,5% of global warming. A significant difference.

This article about the myths and realities of carbon offsets by Gianni Catalfamo is a good one. Here is an excerpt of the points noted:

1. With all due respect for those extolling the virtues of new turbogas generators of sky-high efficiency, generating electricity still wastes two-thirds of the energy it consumes;
2. On the contrary, much-maligned about home heating is relatively more frugal, using two-third of the energy it consumes;
3. Industry does not fare that badly either, almost achieving 50% usage;
4. Transportation is both the largest consumer and the most wasteful, throwing away a whopping 80% of the consumed energy, which comes mostly from hydrocarbons;
5. Very polluting (but very cheap) coal still feeds one third of the electricity generated in America.

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