By Chris Lang
In short, the article argues that in order to address the climate crisis we have to leave fossil fuels underground. But instead of discussing how to do this, 30 years of climate negotiations at the UN level have created a series of dangerous distractions, in particular relying on carbon offsetting schemes, such as REDD.
The purpose of carbon markets is not to reduce emissions, it is to allow Big Polluters to continue their destruction and extractivism. The oil industry’s claims of “carbon neutral” fossil fuels reveal this purpose clearly. Claims that emissions can be “offset” by buying carbon credits are just greenwash.
The article was reposted by Klimareporter°. Last week, Klimareporter° interviewed physicist and meteorologist, Hartmut Graßl, who is a member of Klimareporter°’s editorial board. Graßl is featured regularly on the Klimareporter° website.
Here’s a translation of the question relating to my article and Graßl’s answer. Unfortunately, it appears that Graßl either didn’t read the article in full, or completely misunderstood it. My response is below.
Klimareporter°: For 30 years, climate policy has been constantly presenting new beacons of hope: CO2 markets, climate compensation, net zero emissions, nature-based solutions. This is just a distraction from real climate protection, says land use expert Chris Lang in a guest article. The only effective thing to do is to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Is he right?
Hartmut Graßl: As an agreement binding under international law, the Paris Climate Agreement has two pillars, namely a maximum mean global warming substantially below two degrees and the achievement of greenhouse gas neutrality in the second half of our century. In view of the dominance of carbon dioxide in industrial society, the international community can only achieve both if all still recoverable fossil fuels remain in the earth’s crust – after a short transition period with rapidly decreasing use.
But this also means that these mineral resources will soon be worth nothing, and a completely new energy supply must be built. We must return to a second solar age, after we had said goodbye to the first solar age for a few centuries with fossil fuels. In this respect, the guest author is right. What counts now is equipping countries with the two most important renewable energies, solar and wind.
But what he says about other aspects of the carbon cycle we influence needs to be supplemented. The Paris Agreement calls for greenhouse gas neutrality, so, for example, sinks for carbon – mostly CO2 and methane – must be as large as sources. So if we continue to eat meat and dairy products, we must create sinks.
We also need to stop or compensate for the many other sources of greenhouse gases that are hardly ever discussed. First, there are the CO2 emissions to stop from drained peat soils, currently 55 million tonnes per year in Germany – that’s about seven percent of all emissions.
But methane emissions from former coal mines and old landfills are also part of this, as are nitrous oxide emissions from fields fertilised mainly with artificial nitrogen fertiliser.
The Paris Agreement is not working
In the first two paragraphs, Graßl agrees with the argument that we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground. But three of the points he raises are odd, to say the least:
- Graßl’s reference to, and apparent defence of, the Paris Agreement is interesting. The reality is that in the seven years since the Paris Agreement emissions from fossil fuels have increased apart from a temporary 5.4% dip in 2020 because of the pandemic. Global fossil CO2 emissions are 3% above 2015 levels:
- Graßl describes the Paris Agreement as “binding under international law”. That’s a bit of a stretch. What is legally binding is that countries have to produce Nationally Determined Contributions. But the targets in the NDCs are up to each individual country. There are no binding targets in the Paris Agreement. If a country fails to meet its targets in the NDC, there is no legally binding mechanism for holding countries to account.
Instead, Article 15 of the Agreement explains that the mechanism “shall consist of a committee that shall be expert-based and facilitative in nature and function in a manner that is transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive”.
- It’s a strange time for Graßl to make the argument that fossil fuels “will soon be worth nothing”. Oil and gas companies are reporting record profits. In February 2022, BP’s chief financial officer, Murray Auchincloss, told investors that, “It’s possible that we’re getting more cash than we know what to do with.”
In May 2021, the International Energy Agency concluded that there could be no new oil, gas or coal development if the world is to meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Yet oil and gas corporations continue to plan massive new “carbon bomb” projects that will dramatically exacerbate the climate crisis. So the oil industry is moving in completely the wrong direction. But you wouldn’t know that from the outcome of any of the UN climate meetings, or from the Paris Agreement, which doesn’t even mention fossil fuels.
“Carbon neutral” is misleading
Graßl writes that “The Paris Agreement calls for greenhouse gas neutrality, so, for example, sinks for carbon – mostly CO2 and methane – must be as large as sources.” But “carbon neutral” is a deeply misleading term, often bandied around by the oil industry in order to give the impression that by buying offsets they are taking action to address the climate crisis. Meanwhile they continue to profit from business as usual.
We need major changes in the way societies and economies are organised in order to address the climate crisis. Simply swapping burning fossil fuels with wind and solar energy is not going to work. We need to reduce the amount of energy we consume. We need to address over-consumption generally.
Graßl gives the example of the food “we” eat. He suggests that if we are to continue eating meat and dairy products, we “must create sinks”. But surely a better approach would be to dramatically reduce the amount of meat and dairy we eat, and to address the destruction of nature caused by industrial agriculture. Not least because the meat industry is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon, because of land cleared for cattle ranching and for soy plantations to feed cattle.
Graßl mentions the other sources of greenhouse gases – peat soils, methane from former coal mines and landfills and nitrous oxide emissions as a result of nitrogen fertiliser. But he suggests that there is an alternative to stopping these emissions: compensate them.
This slide from an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presentation about the recent Sixth Assessment Report makes clear the relative importance of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel and industry. Emissions from land use, land use change, and forestry amount to 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while emissions from fossil fuels account for 64%. Nitrous oxide accounts for 4%. Meanwhile emissions from fossil fuel and industry have grown steadily since 1990, and by significantly more than emissions from other sectors:
Offsetting is not an option
My point in the article for Forum Umwelt und Entwicklung is that offsetting is not an option if we are serious about addressing the climate crisis. We need to preserve rainforests and we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. We cannot trade the carbon stored in forests against continued emissions from fossil fuels, or methane emissions from coal mines, or nitrous oxide emissions from industrial agriculture. We cannot offset our way out of the climate crisis.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Graßl’s response to my article is that it confirms my argument: offsetting is a dangerous distraction from urgently needed discussions about how to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Instead of discussing the societal and economic changes that are needed to address extractivism, over-consumption, and the problems of endless growth under capitalism, we are disagreeing about “compensation” and “carbon neutrality”.