The Carbon Neutral Myth highlights several ways in which this approach
to climate change is fundamentally flawed
The Carbon Neutral Myth
Our Prime Minister has extolled New Zealand's to move to a carbon neutral world.
What does this mean actually reality? A recent book entitled The Carbon Neutral Myth exposes some of the realities behind this approach.
From the late Middle Ages, Western Europe became slowly but surely engulfed
by the tide of mercantilism that superseded the feudal economy. This system,
which to us is second nature, was revolutionary at the time. It was, in its own
way, the first wave of economic globalization to wash over Europe.
Mercantilism, simply put, is a system of economic relations in which goods purchased
in one place are sold at a much higher price somewhere they are
scarce. The Catholic Church, at the time suffering from a shortage of funds,
decided to use the burgeoning market ethic to its own material advantage.
Catholic doctrine maintains that to avoid time in Purgatory after you die, you
need to expiate your sins via some sort of punishment or task that is an external
manifestation of your repentance. The idea was that the clergy were doing
more of such actions than their meager sins demanded, so they effectively had
a surplus of good deeds. Under the logic of the emerging market, these could
be sold as indulgences to sinners who had money, but not necessarily the time
or inclination to repent for themselves. Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale immortalized
the sale of such indulgences by pardoners, which was essentially how
the church took a market-based approach to sinning as a means of income
generation. The Brazilian theologian Dr. Odair Pedroso Mateus pointed out in
2001 that indulgences are "not about grace and gratefulness but about
exchanging goods, about buying and selling, about capitalism".
Many centuries later, there are new indulgences on the market in the form of
carbon offsets. The modern-day Pardoners are companies like Climate Care,
the Carbon Neutral Company, Offset My Life and many others. These self-styled
'eco-capitalists' are building up what they claim are 'good climate deeds'
through projects which supposedly reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions.
These wholesale emissions reductions can then be profitably sold back at retail
prices to modern-day sinners who have money, but not necessarily the time or
inclination to take responsibility for their emissions, and can afford to buy the
surplus 'good deeds' from the offset companies.
Most offset schemes take the following approach. A simple calculator on a website
shows the quantity of emissions produced by a certain product or
activity.The customer can then choose from a variety of projects that promise
to 'neutralise' an equivalent amount of emissions by energy-saving, or through
carbon absorption in trees. The consumer pays according to the claimed project
costs and the amount of emissions to be 'neutralised'. Most carbon offset
companies cater to both individuals and corporations. Corporations can pay to
'neutralise' emissions generated by the production of consumer items or services,
which can then be marketed on the basis of their climate-friendly credentials.
This process has been dubbed 'carbon branding'. The carbon offset market
is booming. In the first three quarters of 2006, about EUR 89 million were
sold to companies and individuals all over the world, up 300 per cent from
2005. It is predicted that the voluntary offsets market will be worth EUR 450 million
in three years time.
Even offset industry insiders are concerned about the lack of regulation and
scrutiny of the new market. Offsets expert Francis Sullivan, who was instrumental
in HSBC's attempt to 'neutralize' its emissions, commented that, "there
will be individuals and companies out there who think they're doing the right
thing but they're not. I am sure that people are buying offsets in this unregulated
market that are not credible. I am sure there are people buying nothing more
than hot air." A report by Standard Life Investments on 'Carbon Management
& Carbon Neutrality in the FTSE All-Share' tellingly warned that such schemes
"have the capacity to disguise the failure to achieve actual reductions in overall
greenhouse gas emissions."
The Carbon Neutral Myth highlights several ways in which this approach
to climate change is fundamentally flawed. The first chapter examines
how the existence of offset schemes presents the public with an opportunity
to take a 'business as usual' attitude to the climate change threat.
Instead of encouraging individuals and institutions to profoundly change
consumption patterns as well as social, economic and political structures,
we are being asked to believe that paying a little extra for certain
goods and services is sufficient. For example, if one is willing to pay a
bit more for 'offset petrol' one doesn't have to worry about how much is
consumed, because the price automatically includes offsetting the emissions
One of the most high-profile offset companies to emerge to date is the Carbon
Neutral Company, formerly known as Future Forests. Chapter two examines its
history, revealing mounting criticism of its business practice and exposing how
little of its income makes it to the offset projects themselves.
The initial success of offset schemes was partly due to the popular idea that
tree planting is inherently environmentally friendly. The third chapter criticizes
the scientific basis of offsetting, showing that it is not possible to equate
absorption of atmospheric CO2 by trees with the fossil CO2 emitted from burning
fossil fuels. It also examines problems with the impermanence of carbon
storage in plantations, and how hypothesizing what emissions have been
avoided by renewable energy projects and emissions reduction schemes
amounts to little more than guesswork.
The fourth chapter frames offset projects in the Majority World as a new stage
in the Global North's coercive development agenda. Three case studies -
plantations in India and Uganda, and an energy efficiency project in South
Africa -show how the idealized portrayal of these projects is not always
matched by the reality of the situation, either in terms of their effectiveness in
reducing emissions or, more importantly, of their harmful impacts upon local
Chapter five critically examines the use of celebrity endorsement in political
environmental campaigns, which partly accounts for the enormous popularity
of offsets. It includes interviews with two celebrities who have been more
proactive in taking responsibility for their emissions, as well as touching on
issues of climate change in their work.
The final chapter addresses the issue of providing positive alternatives rather
than just criticizing offset schemes. It draws attention to a company that has
chosen other means of putting its green credentials into practice and, looking
at the example of the recent victory of women in the Ogoni tribe of Nigeria
against the petrol multinational Shell, examines why the solutions to climate
change need to be much more systemic, empowered and politically engaged
than is permitted within the scope of carbon offsets.
The sale of offset indulgences is a dead-end detour off the path of action
required in the face of climate change. There is an urgent need to return to
political organising for a wider, societal transition to a low carbon economy,
while simultaneously taking direct responsibility for reducing our personal
emissions. Offset schemes are shifting the focus of action about climate
change onto lifestyles, detracting from the local participation and movement
building that is critical to the realization of genuine social change. It is hoped
that the rising awareness of the shortcomings of offset credits will contribute to
a reformation of the climate change debate.
George Ryan freelance writer on climate change issues
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