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Opinion Climate offsetting is merely a damaging and ineffective accounting trick

Dr Stephen Onakuse says time is running out and large polluters are relying too heavily on greenwashing.

AFTER JOHN OLIVER lambasted corporate carbon offsetting programmes during the summer, I was reminded of a company called YepYou, which offers the world’s first human breath carbon offset service for $17 per year.

YepYou is part of a growing market that allows individuals or businesses to buy carbon credits to offset some of their CO2 emissions. That market could be worth more than $50 billion by 2030 according to a report published by McKinsey last year.

However, as it currently stands, it is a market that lacks regulation, transparency and scientific rigour. Or to be blunt, carbon offsetting works like an accounting trick that allows organisations and nations to achieve their net zero targets without having to rapidly reduce their overall emissions.

For example, research has found that companies that are responsible for high levels of emissions, such as oil and gas firms, are among the most likely organisations to have announced net zero targets.

Does the polluter pay?

This raises a very obvious question; how do the world’s largest polluters plan to move carbon off their balance sheets and achieve net zero?

First, we need to examine the semantics around offsetting. Most big polluters don’t stray beyond offsetting what is called Scope One or Scope Two emissions. Which is to say, that many companies are only committed to offsetting the carbon emitted from their fleet of vehicles, infrastructure, equipment or the CO2 generated during the production processes.

Those same companies don’t account for their indirect emissions or Scope Three emissions. In practice, this means that some of the world’s largest oil companies claim no responsibility for the carbon that consumers emit when they drive their cars or heat their homes.

To put it another way, many big polluters only account for a tiny fraction of their overall emissions by outsourcing their climate obligations to consumers who have little choice but to burn fossil fuels.

In fact, research undertaken by Oxford University has found that while 702 of the world’s largest publicly traded companies have set net zero targets, only 38% of them have targets that cover Scope Three emissions.

shutterstock_2137656869 Shutterstock Shutterstock

All of which suggests that we’re meandering down a path where big polluters don’t have to take responsibility for their total emissions.

This leaves us with a serious problem because, in spite of all the promises, campaigns and goodwill gestures that have been made, the United Nations estimates that we are on course to increase the surface temperature of the planet by 1.5° by 2040.

Hurtling towards the edge

Even in the best-case scenarios modelled by scientists, our present trajectory has us breaching the 1.5° ceiling that we have set for ourselves by 2050 before the planet cools at the end of the century. The worst-case scenarios aren’t worth thinking about.

This means that large scale carbon offsetting is a non-runner. Put simply, we cannot be in a position where big polluters can deny responsibility for their Scope Three emissions before buying carbon credits to square off what remains on their books.

Just because the CO2 doesn’t appear on a spreadsheet doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. The idea that carbon intensive industries can simply plant trees or fund projects that protect against deforestation to negate their own emissions doesn’t stand up.

CO2 released from the burning of fossil fuels can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, so how can they be immediately offset by the planting of forestry? The practice also defies scientific scrutiny because the processes involved in sequestration are notoriously complex and hugely difficult to measure.

Yet, as John Oliver suggested, we’re happy to go along with the idea that we can make our carbon footprint disappear by buying petrol from retailers that promise to offset the carbon emitted from our cars by planting trees. This means that we’re inadvertently taking ownership of the Scope Three emissions created by the world’s leading polluters.

Already, we’re seeing Airline companies beginning to offer customers offsetting opportunities, whereby consumers are being offered the chance to part with a small charge to offset the carbon emitted during flights.

That is the logic of alchemy. If we are to begin to move away from this proto science, we need to adopt a forensic means of carbon accounting to ensure transparency.

As it stands, we’re cooking the books by moving carbon around spreadsheets until red ink turns black. Unless we actually go about reducing our emissions, we’re fooling ourselves.

This needs to be the focus of COP 27 in Egypt this weekend, otherwise, we’ll be gambling on planet-saving technology being ready in time to avoid what UN Secretary-General António Guterres described as an “atlas of human suffering”.

Dr Stephen Onakuse is a Senior lecturer in the Department of Food Business and Development, Cork University Business School, University College Cork, and the President of the European Alliance on Agricultural Knowledge for Development – (Agrinatura).

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Dr Stephen Onakuse
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