By Chris Lang
That’s how comedian John Oliver started his recent show about carbon offsets. “Luckily though,” Oliver says, “one group is here to fix it: giant corporations.”
Here are my notes of John Oliver’s show. It’s almost the entire thing, including links to the articles and reports he refers to, but excluding the jokes. Apart from the obvious one that carbon offsets are a joke. If you want the rest of the jokes, watch the video.
Oliver refers to a 2021 report by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit and Oxford Net Zero that found that one in five of the world’s 2,000 largest publicly traded companies have committed to a “net-zero” emissions target.
Oliver points out that two-thirds of companies rely on carbon offsets instead of emissions reductions to achieve their “net-zero” goals.
“If the idea that you can simply invest a little money and make your carbon footprint disappear sounds too good to be true,” Oliver says, “that’s because it absolutely is.”
To highlight the point, Oliver quotes a Bloomberg article that states, “Study after study has indicated that most offsets available on the market don’t reliably reduce emissions and yet offsets are now the backbone of the environmental policies of many of the biggest polluters on the planet.”
Oliver explains the idea of a carbon offset: “If you emit CO2 into the atmosphere, you can offset it, by, say, planting or protecting trees which remove carbon from the air, or building a wind farm to replace a fossil fuel plant.”
And he shows a clip from a 2011 BP video to show how a major polluter like BP sells the idea of offsets:
I’ve been driving around and generating three tons of carbon dioxide which of course I’ve released into the atmosphere to join all the rest of the greenhouse gases that are already up there. Now, imagine that miles away, maybe on the other side of the world, somebody else takes three tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. So, what’s happened? Three tons in, three tons out. Result zero.
While these descriptions are good, as far as they go, it’s a pity that Oliver didn’t explain that the whole point of carbon offsets is not to reduce emissions. The purpose of carbon offsets and carbon markets is to allow the fossil fuel industry to continue profiting from extractivism, pollution, and the destruction of the planet for as long as possible.
The voluntary carbon market
Oliver notes that the voluntary market is smaller than the compliance market but adds that the voluntary market is growing very fast. “It has quadrupled to nearly $2 billion in value in 2021,” he says, quoting from a Wall Street Journal article. The source for this figure, incidentally, is the pro-carbon trading, pro-natural climate solutions, and promoter of markets as the solution regardless of the problem: Ecosystem Marketplace.
Oliver gives some examples of how ordinary people can buy carbon offsets. By ticking a box on a website for “UPS carbon neutral” to “offset” the emissions of a delivery. Or travellers at Austin airport can offset their emissions from flying at a cost of US$2 for more than 1,000 miles of air travel. “Now that price is obviously too low,” Oliver notes. “It is pretty suspicious that you could walk into an airport and offset more than 1,000 miles of air travel for just US$2.”
Then there’s a company called yepyou which (believe it or not) offers the world’s first human breath carbon offset service. Yepyou will also offset your lifestyle, your past or future, your family and friends, your workplace, and even your pets. You can offset your pet pig for just US$10 a year.
Additionality: “Carbon offsets are bullshit”
“On some level,” Oliver says, “you probably know carbon offsets are bullshit.”
Both because you’re a reasonably intelligent person and because you know exactly what show you are watching right now. I don’t open my beak to squawk out good news. This thing pops open for sad news and porridge and I’m all out of porridge right now.
But exactly how offsets are bullshit is really interesting because it’s easy to say that you are reducing carbon emissions but it is much harder to prove it. And the truth is there aren’t many checks and balances in place to prevent abuse.
And let’s start with the fact that a key criterion for any offset project is what’s called additionality. The idea is that an offset should provide an extra reduction of carbon that wouldn’t have happened any other way. For instance, if you planted a tree that wouldn’t otherwise have been planted, that is additional, as is saving a tree that would otherwise have been cut down. But there are many, many cases where the claim of additionality is shaky at best.
Oliver takes a look at JPMorgan Chase, which announced in May 2021 that it has achieved “carbon neutrality across its operations in 2020”.
Obviously, JPMorgan Chase isn’t bothering to look at the emissions caused by the money that pours out of the bank and into the fossil fuel industry. JPMorgan Chase provides more financing for fossil fuels than any other bank in the world. Between 2016 and 2021 JPMorgan Chase funded fossil fuels to the tune of US$382 billion.
Instead of addressing its ongoing funding of fossil fuels, JPMorgan Chase’s “carbon neutral” claim is based on installing LED lighting systems in its offices and branches, installing energy-efficient building management systems, reducing office paper use, buying electric vehicles, and, of course, buying almost US$1 million worth of carbon offsets.
These offsets are generated from an area in Pennsylvania called Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. “It turns out that the threats to the sanctuary were wildly overblown,” Oliver notes. He shows a clip from a Wendover Productions video called “The Carbon Offset Problem”.
In the case of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, The Nature Conservancy bought the land in 2018. In 2020 Ben Elgin, an investigative journalist with Bloomberg, exposed the fact that “this Pennsylvania ridge wasn’t in peril”. The trees have been protected for more than 80 years.
But the carbon project documents claim that “The baseline scenario represents an aggressive industrial harvest regime, targeted to maximize net present value at a 6% discount rate, typical of ca. 2017 practices in the project region on private lands. Baseline practices involve large scale clearcuts and high grading.” Without the money from carbon offsets, the project developers claim, the forest would be clearcut.
As Oliver points out, the forest was not under threat. “That probably should have been obvious,” he adds, “from the fact that it was a preserve and not called the ‘Hawk Mountain Chop-Chop Zone and Tree Murder Playground.”
The Nature Conservancy sold offsets from another project called Pennsylvania Ridges to Disney. Bloomberg’s Ben Elgin notes that,
Before the Conservancy bought it, the area was “specifically and immediately threatened by a pending logging contract,” according to an archived version of its website. So the nonprofit did what it does so well: It raised millions of dollars from donors to purchase the land, including $2.5 million from a local philanthropist named Donald Hamer, who died in 2016. Hamer’s gift “will help restore the land through sustainable forestry,” reads a plaque the nonprofit gave him. The group extolled the purchase at the time, saying the “acquisition of this property by the Nature Conservancy has successfully abated these threats.”
Yet project documents state that without carbon funding the land “could otherwise undergo significant commercial timber harvesting”. Elgin points out that The Nature Conservancy could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from sales of carbon offsets that are supposed to conserve a forest that The Nature Conservancy has already saved.
In a promotional video on its website Disney claims to have “reduced over 4 million tons of carbon dioxide, equal to taking over 900,000 cars off the road.”
“Which we already know is not true,” Oliver comments.
Oliver takes a look at where the money from offsets ends up. The Austin airport offsets, for example, came from the Hudson Farm Club in New Jersey, a private hunting club. The Hudson Farm Club was set up by the billionaire businessman Peter Kellogg. The Hudson Farm Club and the carbon credit company Bluesource claim that without the money from offsets, 77% of the trees on the property could be clearcut between 2017 and 2022.
“But that clearly wasn’t going to happen,” Oliver says. “It’s owned by a billionaire, and exists for rich guys to fantasise about shooting animals in the wild . . . .”
Anyone who has a tree
With the market for carbon offsets expanding, “there are now companies actively recruiting almost anyone who has a tree to get in on the action.” He highlights two: FiniteCarbon and NCX. Both companies find small landowners and connect them with companies that pay them not to cut down their trees.
“With NCX,” Oliver says, “you don’t even have to promise never to cut your trees down as they give you the option to still get paid simply to defer cutting them down for as little as one year. But a twelve month delay doesn’t really benefit the planet much. As one expert that we talked to framed it, it’s akin to selling a carbon credit for holding your breath for 15 seconds.”
Oliver moves on to the problem of leakage:
Also, there’s a much bigger problem with all of these tree-based programmes which is that even if they do protect one section of trees from logging, that doesn’t necessarily mean much if a logging operation simply cuts down the trees on the land next door instead.
Plus, given that forest fires are now on the rise, thanks to climate change, offset programmes can, and have, literally gone up in flames.
All of this is why, while companies love to make big, broad claims about the benefits of their offsets they really don’t like getting into the details.
To illustrate this last point, Oliver takes a look at Ryanair. In 2018, Ryanair launched a voluntary carbon offsets scheme. Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London, told The Guardian that “tree planting schemes funded by Ryanair in Ireland and Portugal would offset just 0.01% of the airline’s emissions. “To me, that’s a green gimmick,” Lewis added.
Oliver shows a clip from a 2019 Panorama documentary in which Panorama’s reporter Justin Rowlatt interviewed Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary. The whole documentary is well worth watching:
And here’s REDD-Monitor’s take on the Panorama documentary:
The problem with carbon offsets
Oliver summarises the problem with carbon offsets as follows:
The problem with carbon offsets is everyone wants to believe in them. Buyers want a cheap way to make a big claim, and sellers want money for doing as little as possible. And ideally there’d be an entity in the middle charged with keeping both sides honest. And there actually is. They’re called carbon offset registries. They’re supposed to be neutral third parties who sign off on the efficacy of potential offets. These four are the major ones in the voluntary offset market.
The four registries that Oliver lists are the Gold Standard, the American Carbon Registry, Verra, and the Climate Action Reserve:
But those registries aren’t really accountable to anyone. Technically, you or I could start a registry and given that they are paid by the companies selling the offsets, it will not surprise you to learn that many experts say their standards are far too low.
As exemplified by the fact the Hawk Fountain Preserve, the Disney Forest, and the hunting club all met the standards of the American Carbon Registry. Basically getting a sign-off from a carbon registry is like winning a kids’ choice award. It doesn’t really mean much but it will help you temporarily look a little bit greener.
“It is good to protect forests”
Oliver again highlights the additionality problem:
And look, the problem isn’t those projects themselves, it is good to protect forests. But the issue is claiming that they cancel out carbon emissions, because truly offsetting carbon is technically possible. Theoretically if a wind farm gets built to replace a fossil fuel plant that had zero likelihood of getting built otherwise, that could be a genuine offset.
This is the best case scenario with offsets. But in this best case scenario there is no reduction in emissions from burning fossil fuels. As the 2011 BP video explains, “Three tons in, three tons out. Result zero.”
At this stage of the climate crisis we do not have the luxury of continuing to burn fossil fuels and hoping that offsets will come to the rescue through a mixture of magic and wishful thinking. We urgently need to dramatically reduce emissions from fossil fuels and offsets are a massive distraction from the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
Oliver points out that the best case scenario for carbon offsets is rarely what happens on planet earth:
But real world examples of that are incredibly hard to find. One study of wind turbine projects in India found that ‘at least 52% of approved carbon offsets’ were for ‘projects that would very likely have been built anyway’, which causes real damage because polluters in countries that cap emissions bought those offsets. And when you buy an offset so you can pollute more and that offset is bullshit, you’re now actively making things worse. In fact, that study argues ‘the sale of these offsets substantially increased global carbon dioxide emissions’. Which clearly is not very good.
The study Oliver refers to is titled “Do carbon offsets offset carbon?” and it was published in 2021 by the London School of Economics and Political Science. The authors estimate that 28 million tonnes of carbon offsets were generated from wind farms in India by “projects that would very likely have been built anyway”.
“People might be living there”
Oliver saves one of the key problems with offsets to the end:
There is one final way that carbon offsets can cause harm. Because when that BP spokesperson . . . referred to building an offsetting project miles away, maybe on the other side of the world, it is worth remembering that people might be living there.
Oliver uses the example of Green Resourses’ project in Uganda – highlighting the excellent research carried out by the Oakland Institue:
A decade ago, the Swedish Energy Agency announced that it had bought carbon credits from a company called Green Resources, which said that it had planted pine forests [sic] in Uganda that could offset carbon emissions elsewhere. The problem was, thousands of rural Ugandans were evicted by the Ugandan government to make room for the plantation.
Oliver shows an excerpt from Sweden’s TV4 Kalla Fakta documentary in which journalist Camilla Ziedorn interviewed Odongo Felix:
Odongo Felix: “When I was seven years old, I started herding cattle. The other kids and I herded the livestock on our land. There were rocks that were remnants from my great-great-grandfather’s day.”
Camilla Ziedorn: “Odongo, do you have a possibility to just to show us where your land was?”
Odongo Felix:No. That would be a problem. I can get in trouble if I show you the land.”
“That’s obviously awful,” Oliver comments. “No one should ever be scared to show someone a piece of land.”
The Swedish Energy Agency has now backed away from the Green Resources project, but as Oliver points out, “They only did that after that news segment that you just saw embarrassed them on Swedish television, and they were completely fine with it until then.”
“We cannot offset our way out of climate change”
Oliver concludes with the obvious: Offsets are both useless and dangerous. “So it seems at best the benefits of carbon offsets are wildly overstated,” he says, “while the harm that they can do is very real.”
While there are ongoing efforts to at least improve the standards of registries, the truth is offsets aren’t the answer here. Fundamentally, we cannot offset our way out of climate change. Even the current CEO of United Airlines knows this. He’s one of the few heads of a fossil fuel dependent company who’s actually willing to acknowledge how inadequate offsets can be.
Oliver shows a clip from a 2021 Bloomberg intervew with Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines in which Kirby says the following:
“The real challenge we have globally is that mankind produces 4,000 times as many emissions as we did in the pre-industrial era. And most of these carbon offset projects are about planting trees. There’s not room on the planet to plant 4,000 times as many trees. It simply can’t be the answer. And the problem with it is, is it’s the easy solution. It’s the solution that if you’re sitting in a C-suite you can write a cheque and check the box and have a marketing message that I’ve offset all my carbon. But you really haven’t done anything.”
Oliver agrees with Kirby, although he notes that while the United Airlines’ boss may be good at talking about the problems with offsets, that doesn’t stop his company from using them:
He’s right. That airline CEO is right. Although it does speak to the seductive power of offsets that even his company can’t seem to give them up, because if you go to the United Airlines website right now you’ll find a page where you can offset your flight in front of a picture of a fucking forest.
And then there’s the problem of infinite offsets on a finite planet. Oliver quotes from a 2021 Bloomberg Green article:
There literally isn’t enough space for every country to plant trees and fulfill their own net zero pledge. By one estimate, ‘there’s only about 500 million hectares of land left that can be dedicated to new forests [sic] for carbon capture’. And Shell alone has proposed ‘planting a tenth of that amount’.
Oliver finishes his show by setting up a fake carbon offsets website: Oliver’s Offsets.
The bottom line is we have an offset system that places profits over science and the rules regulating it are just far too lax. And the reason I know that is, remember when I said five minutes ago that I could set up a carbon registry? You already knew where this was heading, right? You knew that if I had a loophole where I could set up a registry, establish whatever standards I wanted, and start listing projects, then I was going right through that fucking loophole, right? You knew that was going to happen.
And here it is:
Oliver’s Offsets issued 10,000 carbon credits at US$1 each. One carbon credit would stop Oliver cutting down one of the fake plastic trees in his studio for exactly five minutes. “Pay me a dollar,” Oliver says, “and in return we will send you back a card that you can use as proof that you are now carbon neutral. We’re making big claims, while doing very little. Which honestly is entirely reflective of the system that we currently have.”
One day later Oliver’s Offsets were sold out: