The Injustice of Carbon Offsets

Offset Schemes Require the Poorest to be Twice Burdened

The science of climate change is now clear, but the politics is very
muddy. Historically, the major polluters were the rich, industrialised
countries, so it made sense that they should pay the highest price. The
Kyoto Protocol, adopted in December 1997, set binding targets for these
countries to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by 5 per cent on
average against 1990 levels by 2012. But by 2007, America's
greenhouse-gas levels were 16 per cent higher than 1990 levels. The
American Clean Energy and Security Act, which was passed in June,
commits the US to reduce emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by
2020, yet this is just 4 per cent below 1990 levels.

The Kyoto
Protocol also allows industrialised countries to trade their allocation
of carbon emissions, and to invest in carbon mitigation projects
developing countries in exchange for Certified Emission Reduction
Units, which they can use to meet reduction targets. But emissions
trading, or offsetting, is not in fact a mechanism to reduce emissions.
As the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, has pointed
out, the emissions offset in the American act would allow "business as
usual" growth in US emissions until 2030, "leading one to wonder:
where's the 'cap' in 'cap and trade'?".

Such schemes are more
about privatising the atmosphere than about preventing climate change;
the emissions rights established by the Kyoto Protocol are several
times higher than the levels needed to prevent a 2degC rise in global
temperatures. Allocations for the UK, for example, added up to 736
million tonnes of carbon dioxide over three years, meaning no reduction
commitments. And emissions rights generate super profits for polluters.

Emissions Trading Scheme granted allowances of 10 per cent more than
2005 emission levels. This translated to 150 million tonnes of surplus
carbon credits, which at 2005 prices translates into profits of more
than $1bn.

Carbon trading uses the resources of poorer people and
poorer regions as "offsets" for richer countries: it is between 50 and
200 times cheaper to plant trees in poor countries to absorb CO2 than
it is to reduce emissions at source. In other words, the burden of
"clean-up" falls on the poor. From a market perspective, this might
appear efficient, but in terms of energy justice, it is perverse to
burden the poor twice - first with the impact of CO2 pollution in the
form of climate disasters and then with offsetting the pollution of the

In a globalised economy, addressing pollution by setting
emissions levels for each country is inappropriate for two reasons.
First, not all the citizens of a country contribute to pollution. As a
result of China becoming the world's factory, its CO2 emissions
outstrip those of the US, putting it in first place worldwide. In 2006,
China produced 6.1 billion tonnes of CO2; the US produced 5.75 billion
tonnes. But in the US, emissions were 19 tonnes of CO2 per capita,
compared with 4.6 tonnes in China. And much of China's CO2 could be
counted as US emissions, because China is producing goods for US
companies that America will consume. Wal-Mart, for example, procures
most of what it sells from China.

Similarly, while only 2.13 per
cent of the world's emissions emanate from the UK's domestic economy,
CO2 is created on the UK's behalf in China, India, Africa and
elsewhere. The global carbon footprint of UK companies is not known,
but estimates suggest that emissions associated with worldwide
consumption of the top 100 UK products accounts for between 12 and 15
per cent of the world total.

Thanks to industrialisation, the
rural poor in China and India are losing out on their land and
livelihood. To count them as polluters is doubly criminal. When global
firms outsource to China or India, they need to be responsible for the
pollution they carry overseas.

Regulating by carbon trading is
like fiddling as Rome burns. Governments and the UN should impose a
carbon tax on corporations, both for production - wherever their
facilities are located - and for transport, which the Kyoto Protocol
does not account for directly. Incentives for renewable energy are also
essential. We face a stark choice: we can destroy the conditions for
human life on the planet by clinging to "free-market" fundamentalism,
or we can secure our future by bringing commerce within the laws of
ecological sustainability and social justice.

© 2023 The New Statesman