Do Carbon Offsets Work?
In a warming world, carbon offsets are are a hot commodity. For industries looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, offsets are a way to meet some of their climate commitments. Offsets involve paying for reducing or avoiding emissions elsewhere – for example, via a renewable energy project – to balance out the emissions you can’t reduce at your end. But does paying to pollute really work? Louis Blumberg of The Nature Conservancy says offsets help protect forests and can ease our transition to a low-carbon future. Daphne Wysham of the Institute for Policy Studies says offsets just incentivize more bad behavior.
Fighting Climate Change with Forests
by Louis Blumberg
Louis Blumberg is the director of the California Climate Change Program at The Nature Conservancy and has been active in developing forest carbon policy in California since 1999.
In his classic story, “The Giving Tree,” Shel Silverstein illustrates how one tree plays a central role in the life of a boy as he grows up and utilizes the tree throughout his experiences. As is the case in most classic children books, the central message is relevant to children and adults alike: The lives of humans and forests are interlinked, and preserving our forests is crucial to preserving our quality of life.
Forests are not only a crucial component in preserving clean air and water – they can also protect us from the impacts of climate change. Scientists estimate that forest loss accounts for about 15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, making deforestation the second largest source of carbon pollution after the fossil fuels we burn for transportation and electricity. Yet each year more than 32 million acres of the world’s forests are destroyed – an area larger than the state of Pennsylvania. That pumps millions of tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere annually.
Nothing More than Hot Air
by Daphne Wysham
It started in the dog days of August, 1996, when Washington becomes a ghost town. That was when the World Bank revised its energy efficiency standards for thermal power plants, weakening them dramatically. Why would the primary institution entrusted with the task of financing clean energy development at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 suddenly lower its standards for fossil fuel power plants, essentially incentivizing more pollution? It turned out it had a lot to do with carbon offsets.
But it took us a few years to figure that out. The first piece of the puzzle came together in 1997 when the project I direct, the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network, issued a report finding that the World Bank had been ramping up its investment in coal, oil, and gas. Our report found that, in the five years since the Earth Summit, the bank had funded projects that would add about 2 gigatons of carbon to Earth’s atmosphere every year. The Bank had failed in living up to the mandate entrusted to it in Rio, and instead was taking the planet toward climate catastrophe.