Nature: Column: “The inconvenient truth of carbon offsets”

April 7, 2012

Nature: Column: “The inconvenient truth of carbon offsets”


Column: World View

The inconvenient truth of carbon offsets

Kevin Anderson explains why he refused to purchase

a carbon offset, and why you should steer clear

of them too


04 April 2012

Planet Under Pressure was a major conference on

the environment held in London last week. As a

climate-change scientist, I was invited to

organize a session at it and to present my

group’s research. I declined the offer, and here

is why.

The organizers of the conference said that the

event would be “as close to carbon neutral as

possible”. There are good ways to achieve this

noble goal: virtual engagement such as video

conferencing, advice on lower-carbon travel

options, and innovative registration tariffs to

reward lower-carbon involvement. But, instead,

the organizers chose a series of carbon-offset

projects financed through a compulsory £35

(US$56) fee levied on all delegates.

This was unacceptable to me. Offsetting is worse

than doing nothing. It is without scientific

legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost

certainly contributes to a net increase in the

absolute rate of global emissions growth.

It is true that the projects funded through these

and other offsets can help development. And a

rise in emissions from industrializing nations

is, in the short term, a good indicator of rising

prosperity and should be welcomed.

My objection to offsetting and the Clean

Development Mechanism (CDM) – the

state-sanctioned version that operates under the

Kyoto Protocol – is directed at the claims that

they reduce emissions to levels at or below those

that would have transpired had the activity being

offset not occurred. That spurious argument

neglects the various possible impacts of an

offset and the repercussions of these for

emissions in the longer term.

The science underpinning climate change makes

clear that the temperature rise by around the end

of this century will relate to the total

emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases between

2000 and 2100. Consequently, when considering our

impact, we have to look at the total sum of our

emissions released in that time; offset projects

must be measured over that period. There is no

point in reducing emissions by 1 tonne in the

short run if the knock-on impact is 2 tonnes

emitted in 2020 or even 1.5 tonnes in, say, 2050.

The implications of this for the concept of

offsetting and the CDM are profound.

For example, if I fly to a climate conference,

any claim to offset my emissions must, with a

reasonable level of certainty and for a 100-year

period, show that the flight emissions plus any

emission consequences of the offset projects

ultimately sum to zero. It is the immutable

impossibility of making such long-term assurances

that fundamentally challenges the value of such a

claim. Worse still, in a world with rising

economic prosperity (fuelled mainly by coal, oil

and gas), there is a high probability that

offsetting projects contributing to prosperity

will increase emissions over and above those

arising solely from the activity being offset.

The promise of offsetting triggers a rebound away

from meaningful mitigation and towards the

development of further high-carbon

infrastructures. The UK government’s purchase of

offsets through the CDM and its simultaneous

drive towards both additional airport capacity

and the exploitation of UK shale-gas reserves are

just two such examples. If offsetting is deemed

to have equivalence with mitigation, the

incentive to move to lower-carbon technologies,

behaviours and practices is reduced accordingly.

Offsetting, on all scales, weakens present-day

drivers for change and reduces innovation towards

a lower-carbon future. It militates against

market signals to improve low-carbon travel and

video-conference technologies, while encouraging

investment in capital-intensive airports and new

aircraft, along with roads, ports and fossil-fuel

power stations.

For an offset project to be genuinely low-carbon,

it must guarantee that it does not stimulate

further emissions over the subsequent century.

Although standards and legislation around

offsetting and the CDM sometimes consider ‘carbon

leakage’ in the projects’ early years, it is

impossible to quantify with any meaningful level

of certainty over the timeframes that matter. To

do so would presume powers of prediction that

could have foreseen the Internet and low-cost

airlines following from Marconi’s 1901 telegraph

and the Wright brothers’ 1903 maiden flight.

Assume I broke my (self-imposed) seven-year

refusal to fly, paid my £35 offset and boarded a

plane from Manchester to London for the

conference. In doing so, I add to the already

severe congestion at airports, causing delays and

allowing politicians to argue for greater airport

capacity, arguments only reinforced by the rise

in passengers turning to offsets. To meet

increasing demand, airlines are encouraged to

order new aircraft, which they promise will be

more efficient. Feeling pressure, a future

government approves new runways, but the extra

flights and emissions swamp efficiency gains from

the cleaner engines.

Meanwhile, in an Indian village where my offset

money has helped to fund a wind turbine, the

villagers now have the (low-carbon) electricity

to watch television, which provides advertisers

of a petrol-fuelled moped with more viewers, and

customers. A fuel depot follows, to meet the new

demand, and encourages others to invest in old

trucks to transport goods between villages.

Within 30 years, the village and surroundings

have new roads and many more petrol-fuelled

mopeds, cars and trucks. Meanwhile, the emissions

from my original flight are still having a

warming impact, and will do for another 100 years

or so.

Where is the offset in that?

Journal name:






Date published:

    (05 April 2012)




“Three concepts are almost completely foreign to

people who are not ecologists: (1) natural

ecosystems provide services on which our

economic, social, cultural and political systems

depend; (2) when these processes are altered, our

quality of life declines; (3) when the processes

fail, life becomes very difficult or impossible.

As a result of this ignorance, conservation is

seen by many as a minor amenity benefiting a

small cadre of birdwatchers or backpackers that

stands in the way of ‘progress’ that benefits


Brussard and Tull. “Conservation Biology and Four

Types of Advocacy.” Conservation Biology 2007 21

(1) 21 – 24).



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