Carbon offsetting - a dangerous delusion and no solution to the world's climate problem?!

Also a review of some of the claims in the Australian environmental film "2040".

Carbon offsetting has become fashionable as a 'solution' to the world's energy problem. On the surface, it offers a quick fix solution. Perhaps because of this, it seems particularly to appeal to comfortable middle and upper class families who do not wish to give up their energy intensive lifestyles. Unfortunately, application of carbon offsetting doesn't generally result in any reduction is world carbon emissions, and so could be termed a dangerous delusion.

Carbon offsetting is much promoted by the tourism industry - airlines and cruise ship operators in particular, as a part of their attempts to 'green' the image of tourism. Aircraft are responsible for only around 3% of the world's CO2 emissions (c.2018 figures) but the sector is growing rapidly. Cruise ships use (in the main) some of the most filthy high sulphur fuels.

Tourism can be directly environmentally destructive - even leaving aside its own carbon emissions - sometimes quoted as high as 10% of world emissions. For example:

Cayman island reef destruction.

The key problem is that the 'price' of carbon is set far too low - it doesn't properly take into account the future environmental damage of emissions. Instead of being priced at maybe a few dollars per tonne it should be priced at at least $75 per tonne (IMF reference) and maybe as high as $200 per tonne if serious reductions in energy use are to be encouraged (add references).

The following letters were published in the Guardian on 25 November 2019 following an article in the Guardian on 19 November.

carbon1.JPG (246916 bytes) "Carbon offsetting is basically dishonest in that it purports to offer a way of saving the world that is commensurate with a business as usual scenario."

Dr Stephen Wozniak

carbon2.JPG (173796 bytes) By promoting carbon offsetting, airlines......"mislead passengers into thinking that they are doing something to stop the atmosphere overheating."
carbon3.JPG (218022 bytes) The problem with carbon offsetting is that, as currently practised, the Earth could warm irreversibly beyond a dangerous 1.5 or 2C threshold (that is, beyond a tipping point into a hotter stable state, one from which there may be no way back).

"Yet we could all still be driving and flying whenever we wished, having been told we were having no net impact"

However, despite that carbon offsetting has been heavily criticised for years it is still almost worshipped by some in the environmental movement - and perhaps by people who want to think of themselves as environmentalists but who are unwilling to forego any aspects of their comfortable energy intensive lifestyles.

As of 12 December 2019 (general election day in the UK) Jennifer Morgan (Executive Director of Greenpeace) was interviewed on BBC R4 (8.50 to 8.56 hrs). When asked about carbon offsetting she correctly outlined that it was not a solution to the world carbon emissions problem. On the same day (also on R4) there was also some long overdue discussion of the fact that Europe has achieved its recent reductions of internal carbon emissions broadly by having out-sourced the production of energy intensive goods to other countries, notably China. The essential analysis here is only that of 'system boundaries' - a part of lifecycle analysis that is at least 30 years old. But it takes a while for politicians to catch up!

One sign of hope is that the Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg (having been briefed by some of the world's leading scientists?) articulates a view of the world and of progress (or the lack of it) in reducing world greenhouse gas emissions that is far in advance of the apparent understanding of most politicians. There are numerous references to her work including being made Time Person of the Year 2019.

Add: discussion of personal reductions in energy use, especially heating and cooling of buildings and travel.

Link to enjoyment per unit carbon emission (the start of some analysis of different forms of leisure in terms of enjoyment per unit carbon emission).

(In the same way - plastic used to package food should be analysed in terms of nourishment per unit plastic.)

Also - it has been claimed that reducing meat consumption could be more important in addressing the carbon problem than limiting flying. Both are set to become major contributors to carbon emissions as China and Africa seek to raise their material standards of living to match those of the West.

Some of the realities of meat consumption are discussed here - but these are unlikely to bother the Chinese who may soon become one of the world's largest consumers.

A review of some aspects of the environmental film 2040 - produced in Australia. (other reviews are available on line also)

I watched this film in Exeter as a part of a local Greenpeace event. The opening screen of the film wasn't a good start - with a claim that the energy used in making the film (and including air travel around the world) had been offset with 'certified carbon credits'. Overall, I would rate the film as worth watching for entertainment - and it does also suggest some serious directions in which society might develop. The following 'highlights' are just from my scribbled notes, a more complete analysis is certainly warranted.

Solar cell use in Bangladesh was given as an example of a 'distributed grid' or 'micro-grid' - houses each had their own solar cells, storage batteries and a sharing device that would either sell or buy power from other local houses on the micro-grid according to demand. For households more used to dangerous kerosene (paraffin) lighting, the advent of solar cell lighting must have seemed almost miraculous.

However, the power availability per household would be very low - certainly enough to power a few lights and maybe a small TV and the scheme offered energy distribution without the losses associated with 'centralised' conventional power grids where the distances might be measured in tens or hundreds of kilometres instead of a few hundred metres. This point seemed to have great (instinctive) appeal to the eco-minded people who lose no opportunity to blame 'big power' for energy problems, just as they love to blame 'big agriculture' for all land use degradation. Whilst the example of local grids and local generation of energy may indeed work very well for low power levels in Bangladesh, and in areas where there is plentiful sunshine and where a reliable central grid was not available, it would have less relevance to supplying the needs of typical homes in the UK, for example. One of the companies pioneering this technology is SOLSHARE.

Somewhere in the film the undoubted (and it would be hoped largely undisputed) benefits of educating girls to a higher level would be that they might produce fewer children. But this would be well into the future - long after tipping points may have been passed in the transition to a much warmer Earth, and therefore of little relevance in preventing the transition.

Somewhere also, and as a part of the discussion on micro-grids and solar cell technology, the level of subsidy given to fossil fuels world-wide was stated to be $10M per minute. This would not be difficult to check - (note - check the sums!). $10million per minute is 5.256 TRILLION dollars per year - broadly equal to the claimed total of money laundering in the world! (trillion = a million million).


To gain some perspective here, world total primary energy consumption will probably reach 15,000 Mtoe in the near future, with increases coming mainly from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. European total consumption may continue its slow decline or remain static at around only 1850 Mtoe. (Mtoe = million tonnes oil equivalent where the conversion factor is 1 toe = 11630 kWh = 11.63 MWh, thus 1 Mtoe = 11630 million kWh).

We can now calculate (approximately!) the world expenditure on energy by assuming a figure of 3p/kWh, roughly what primary energy costs end use consumers in the UK (before tax!)  So approximate is this calculation that we can assume 1 =$1 - it might even become true soon.

Thus world energy costs are 5.25 trillion pounds (or dollars), exactly the figure claimed in the film for the subsidy given to fossil fuels. So maybe I misunderstood the film, or something is seriously wrong with the calculations, or indeed without the subsidy, fossil fuel derived energy would cost consumers twice what it does now.

(edit - Check the figures!)


Now back to the film!

One example of how economics needs to be 'rethought' was illustrated by the work of Kate Raworth from the University of Oxford in the UK.  Well referenced as an 'original thinker' (and portrayed as a 'renegade economist' on her ideas were portrayed as central to the societal aim of providing more equality as a part of society based more on sharing and local generation of resources. The ideas are encapsulated in the notion of 'doughnut economics' and questioning the concept of ever increasing growth within a bounded system. A very interesting woman!

Use of cars was much examined with 20% of current USA carbon emissions said to be produced by private cars. An extra 1 BILLION cars world-wide was also predicted unless trends change markedly. One alternative solution incorporating driverless and shared cars especially for short distance transport was highlighted in the work of RethinkX, who envisage a wholly changed transport infrastructure as early as 2030.

A memorable denunciation of present day (2020) 'world car culture' was given by a (female) Australian (?) professor who correctly pointed out that cars had become status symbols and with material and energy use vastly in excess of what would be required for simple transport. There are moves to recognise this fact (not covered in the film to any degree) but examples are given in the youtube videos below (add links).

Some extreme changes were envisaged with few people owning a private 'status symbol' car and with disused parking lots being given over to producing food in city centres - once (presumably) all the toxic and inhospitable concrete and tarmac has somehow been removed and replaced by fertile topsoil? Money for the schemes was to come partly from the (claimed) $1Billion annually spent on preventing carbon reductions. One question not addressed was how to get everyone to work at roughly the same time using a fleet of autonomous car far fewer in number than the present day stock of private cars - all assuming people still had to 'go to work' each day.

Project drawdown was also cited with claims of the potential for forests to draw down carbon already in the atmosphere - it being recognised that with current emission levels we could go well past climate tipping points by 2040 without substantial removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The website is well worth reading, as is the summary of its founder Paul Hawken.

Degradation of soil was covered at several points in the film and with substantial claims that if mismanaged soil could become an emitter of carbon - more so than all the fossil fuel use of the world at present. These claims seemed well worth verification especially as the time scale for action in changing land use could be much faster than (for example) adapting existing building stock to have a lower energy requirement.

Claims for agriculture included that the (much hated) 'industrial agriculture sector produced only 20% of the worlds food with 80% being produced by smaller farms (how small is small?) and more locally. Some astounding examples were given from Australia of how land could be 'reclaimed' from intensive use of chemicals and made to absorb carbon once again via the root systems of mixed crops - and yielding a much better soil structure in the process, including the ability to absorb and retain moisture.

These claims seemed to offer the most immediate prospects for a massive shift towards carbon drawdown if indeed they were correct - the changes could be implemented in only one or two growing seasons - compared with decades to alter transport or buildings energy use.

Another astounding claim was for marine permaculture being used to 'regenerate the oceans' - these having been largely denuded of life because of commercial intensive harvesting of all species of fish to produce fishmeal to feed animals for human consumption of meat.

Similar ideas have been aired in the UK - notably by the columnist George Monbiot and in a series of articles on food supply.   - all worth reading and especially his 2011 article on fish stocks.

The system envisaged in the film 2040 however was postulated to work via overturning the ocean circulation currents, bringing nutrient rich waters to the surface (?). Seaweed, which can be very fast growing would draw down carbon from ocean waters and (in time) reduce atmospheric levels owing to the balance that is attained between CO2 in the oceans and that in the atmosphere. (The process has a time constant of a decade or more I believe).

Overall, if you strip out all the sentiment and the eco-longing for a better world, one devoid of any large scale industry, 2040 is well worth watching for the glimpses it gives into possible solutions for the carbon problem. There is however an urgent need to validate the claims made, to test them on a large scale and to apply those that have the most promise especially in the short term where reductions of carbon emissions may be most crucial.

Disappointingly, the film didn't mention reducing lifestyle comforts to any great degree, yet reductions in energy use and reductions in raw material use by ridding the world of 'consumption culture' and (for women especially) 'retail therapy' and their desperate longing to be 'fashionable' by wearing the latest clothes are absolutely essential if substantial progress is to be made. Unless I missed it, the film didn't address the fact that the textile and fashion industries are among the most environmentally damaging in the world both for their carbon footprint and (especially) in respect of microplastic pollution of the oceans.

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