By Chris Lang
Carbon offsetting has always been controversial. It distracts from the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. And it allows polluting corporations to continue polluting and to delay structural change. Yet carbon offsetting still plays a major role in the UN climate negotiations. In recent years offsetting has received a boost, with the aviation industry, the oil industry, the banking industry, and the conservation industry all pushing for new offsetting schemes.
In a recent paper published in Environmental Politics, Robert Watt, from the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester, writes that,
“Ever since the advent of carbon offsetting in the late 1990s, its problems and contradictions have been documented in critical academic literature, press coverage and civil society publications. Critical accounts have demonstrated that carbon offsetting creates misleading claims about emissions reductions, generates accumulation potential for only a few privileged groups, and often displaces costs on to communities in the global South.”
Watt’s paper is titled, “The fantasy of carbon offsetting.” He reviews the literature on offsetting and analyses a series of interviews with carbon offset market practitioners, “to grapple with the fantasy that sustains carbon offsetting in order to better understand, and indeed contest, its enduring appeal and its continued inclusion in climate governance”.
Watt writes that,
Combining critical literature on carbon offsetting with literature on pyscho-analytical ideology critique can help us appreciate that carbon offsetting problematically responds to the growing social, climatic and ecological crises of capitalism in a fashion that encourages subjects to embrace the logics of neoliberal environmental governance, even though a more fundamental reckoning with the features of subjective attachment to a dying planet is needed.
In 2015, Watt interviewed 65 people who work in offset project development, carbon standard development, consultancy, auditing, and offset retailing. He added to these interviews with visits to three Carbon Expos (in 2013, 2014, and 2018), and the carbon market pavilion at COP19 in Warsaw (in 2013).
Watt writes that carbon offsetters will often acknowledge problems and failures of carbon offsets. One carbon offset retailer told him that, “I also only partly believe in carbon offsetting,” and laughed. Watt notes that this “could be interpreted as a moment where the subject escapes the ideology of carbon offsetting and sees through the absurdities in which they are expected to believe.”
Watt adds that,
However, according to Žižek, ‘it is at this moment of liberating laughter, when we look down on the absurdity of our faith, that we become pure subjects of ideology, that ideology exerts its strongest hold over us’. Žižek’s point is that ideology does not simply mask the real state of things by producing illusions in the realm of knowledge, which could support an interpretation of ideology as false-consciousness. Rather, illusion is based in the ‘reality of what people are doing’. Even when people know that their activity involves following an illusion, ‘still, they are doing it’.
“The appeal of carbon offsets,” Watt writes, “depends on the perceived authority of the experts who assure and certify the absence of carbon that is supposed to cancel the buyer’s excess.”
Watt’s interviews reveal that some people working in the offsets industry rely on experts to uphold their own belief in the legitimacy of offsetting. Watt gives the example of someone who was responsible for buying offsets for a company, who trusted the carbon offset retailer’s claims about the offset:
I know people in [the carbon retailer] take that [additionality] seriously, scrutinise that, and that when the credits are released and certified, the additionality test is covered. So, I can’t further comment on that because I’m not the specialist doing it, but yes, I think it is important that there is no additionality[sic], and that it is looked at, and I can only hope that it is looked at in the right way.
The buyer of carbon offsets is clearly not an expert. “No additionality” would undermine the whole concept of an offset. But the buyer is reassured by trust in the retailer and the certification process.
An offset retailer told Watt that “we only sell carbon credits that are being verified and validated by DOEs [Designated Operational Entities, i.e. auditors] that we trust – respectable DOEs”. This is part of a systemic effort to transform auditors’ guesswork at the project level into legitimised, ‘trustable’ carbon offsets.
Trust is pushed along the supply chain. As Watt notes, “even if an individual does not (fully) believe, other with do it for them, in a process that can be repeated ad infinitum”.
Bad projects, not bad offsetting
Watt describes a common narrative that explains that carbon offsets should be used only for “unavoidable” emissions. The narrative is in part a response to the criticism that offsets allow business as usual, or greenwash.
One voluntary carbon offset retailer told Watt,
Offsetting is an emissions reduction, it’s just an external emissions reduction as opposed to an internal emissions reduction. We always encourage our clients to reduce as much as they can, but there comes a point where you can’t reduce any more unless you turn the lights off and turn everything off and go and sit in the darkened corner and shiver, but that’s not realistic [laughter].
This statement glosses over the fundamental difference between reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels (internal emissions reduction) and paying someone else (often in the Global South) to reduce their emissions (external emissions reduction) to allow continued burning of fossil fuels. And the offset retailer cannot even contemplate the political and social organising needed to change the pattern of energy use in the Global North.
When critics of offsetting highlight problematic offsetting projects, these are often acknowledged as “bad projects”. But offset proponents are keen to explain that these projects are not really what offsetting is all about.
Another carbon offset retailer said,
You are not destroying the concept [of offsetting], you are just saying that there are some bad projects out there. If you take the point of view that there are a number of projects that are not additional, then buy additional projects.
Watt notes that by this logic, no problem is large enough to destroy the concept of offsetting. Even if every offsetting project were systematically shown to be bad, at some point in the future there could be a good one. “The only true offset is the offset that fulfils ‘the concept’; as soon as it does not, it can be deemed only a poor imitation,” Watt writes.
Offsetting proponents describe bad projects as historic, isolated cases. Everyone has moved on from these past mistakes, they say. Fundamental problems are reclassified as learning opportunities. Or as the work of “carbon cowboys”, as an offset retailer explained to Watt:
In the past there have been these cowboys who set up projects through land grabbing and say they are REDD projects . . . I think people who criticise projects of REDD in general, it is incredibly irresponsible of them. They are looking at people who have attempted to produce REDD projects and have failed completely and what they are actually doing is damaging the efforts of other REDD project developers who are just trying to protect threatened forests and trying to prevent emissions being released into the atmosphere and uplifting communities.
According to this argument, anyone linking carbon cowboys to structural problems in the REDD mechanism is “misguided” and “irresponsible”, because such cases aren’t REDD projects at all.
Watt writes that,
The offset here resembles the Hitchcockian MacGuffin, the plot device that sets a story in motion, but which is in itself nothing. Hitchcock’s original articulation of the MacGuffin is itself expressed as a retraction. A stranger on a train asks a fellow traveller what an item of luggage is. It’s a MacGuffin. ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands. ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands.’ Well then, that is no MacGuffin! The parallels with the carbon offset are uncanny. ‘What’s a carbon offset?’ A device for sustainable development and carbon neutrality (for example). ‘But there is no sustainable development and carbon neutrality.’ Well then, that is no carbon offset!
Watt concludes that, “Amid worries about a descent to post-truth, populist nativist politics, it is worth remembering the many post-truth features of neoliberalism, and that the frenetic selectivity of appeals to neoliberal climate science are close to their zenith when it comes to the practice of carbon offsetting.”