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Offsetting is a dangerous climate lie

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By Jennifer Morgan

· 6 min read

In the run up to what needs to be the most defining climate talks since the Paris Agreement was announced amid rapturous applause and tears of relief, we are being gaslit by elites promising Net Zero without doing anything to reduce emissions. Big polluters, alongside governments addicted to putting profit before people and planet, are in turbocharge mode to hoodwink the public into thinking they are finally taking the climate emergency seriously.

Greenpeace supports the aim to achieve Net Zero globally by 2050 as mandated by science, however we dispute the abuse of it by politicians and corporations, whose targets are not currently subject to sufficient regulation or scrutiny. Without global vigilance around Net Zero pledges and offsets, they are likely to be used as greenwashing and distraction by companies that aren’t prepared to lose profits to take the action necessary to help solve the climate crisis.

Plenty of companies - Shell, ExxonMobil and JBS to name a mere few - plus super rich elites, have been profiting from dirty industries for decades while wreaking havoc on communities, climate and nature, and widening the inequality gap. These polluters know their game is almost up as the green transition has to happen for the world to survive, but before it is they want to get as much as they can. 

What these polluting profiteers see as their 'get out of jail for free card in the climate game is offsetting, or to speak plainly, the sewer of the voluntary Net Zero commitments that are being rolled out almost daily. Nothing new, offsetting is about paying for someone else to reduce or remove carbon, while you continue pumping into the atmosphere. It’s like a smoker saying they’ve given up but paying a healthy person for their clean lungs so they can continue puffing. Offsetting is hypocrisy, and it is swirling around more and more as COP26 approaches.

The governments and companies that produce two-thirds of the world’s economic output have pledged to cut emissions to Net Zero by mid-century, but very few have plans on how to do this. Most that say they do, rely on carbon offsets or dubious technology. A robust and credible mechanism to certify these emissions-busting strategies is missing. So, far from taking the climate emergency seriously, it seems it is smoke and mirrors where the worst polluters benefit.

Net Zero pledges by fossil fuel companies are unsurprisingly not worth the paper they are written on. Voluntary commitments and public/private partnerships do not work - just look at how few of the companies that committed to zero deforestation by 2020 actually achieved it.

Or take JBS, the largest meat processing company in the world, producing beef, chicken and pork. In terms of hard targets for its own emissions, the company’s Net Zero announcement offers only an interim target of a 30% reduction by 2030 in the emission intensity from sources owned or controlled by the company (Scope 1) and from the generation of purchased energy (Scope 2), along with a pledge to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2040. Might sound good, but by the company's own admission, so-called ‘Scope 3’ emissions represent more than 90% of its total emissions. Scope 3 are supply/value chain emissions such as those associated with the rearing of livestock by its suppliers, whether resulting from deforestation for pasture, from the production of fertiliser, or emissions from the livestock themselves. 

JBS has said it will spend $100m for research into how to reduce some of these value chain emissions, such as through questionable and agribusiness-favoured “regenerative farming practices''. This is in comparison to the $1bn JBS says it will spend on Scope 1 and 2 emissions reductions projects. It also pledges a new deadline to end supply from deforestation. However, at a fundamental level, the company has no explicit plan to deal with the overwhelming majority of emissions at the heart of its business model: emissions from livestock.

Meanwhile Shell, which set itself a carbon emissions goal to become Net Zero by 2050, plans to expand fossil gas by 20% but offset this through carbon capture and ‘nature-based solutions’. The NBS of choice among many fossil fuel companies is mono-culture tree planting that they claim will set their carbon footprints to “carbon neutral”. This is a dangerous misuse of the concept as the bulk of these initiatives produce wood, fiber, rubber, and other commodifications of nature. Planting a trillion trees is not a climate solution and when misused for offsetting, it’s just accounting tricks.

Net Zero pledges like that of JBS, Shell and all of those that use offsets simply cannot replace needed emissions reductions and fossil fuel phase-outs. They all risk human rights transgressions and detrimentally impacting already vulnerable communities. Nature-based offsetting that relies heavily on land use in the global south risks shifting responsibility for emissions made by wealthier nations to those already struggling with the impacts of the climate crisis.

Offsets will be at the centre of the climate negotiations this November in Glasgow when a global carbon market will be discussed. Many developing countries have made it clear that the negotiations around a carbon market, covered under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, should not be rushed just to achieve a political outcome at COP26. A global carbon market would allow the purchase and selling of offsets putting nature and Indigenous communities under excruciating pressure. No outcome on carbon offset markets under Article 6 would be acceptable to safeguard, protect and uphold human rights, especially the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Traditional communities, and to ensure environmental integrity.

When it comes to Net Zero, simple and transparent plans should be the order of the day. These strategies should have separate targets for dramatic reductions in emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial activities; land use impact, mainly from deforestation and via a reduction of meat and dairy production; and increased commitments and contributions to rights-based nature protection and restoration. 

Going further, governments need to set binding laws that hold companies accountable for their carbon emitting activities. This could lead to corporations which, upon inspection of their carbon account appear to be destroying the climate, are subjected to a penalty system based on the prohibition of the payment of external dividends - employees in share ownership schemes would not be included, as these results are the fruit of their labour. The financial assets invested in climate-destroying economic activities would therefore rapidly lose value - the corresponding fall in share prices would turn them into “stranded assets” - and the government shareholder would be even more careful to guide companies towards carbon neutrality. 

Time is up for making voluntary commitments: influencers must proactively engage in getting the regulations with sanctions in place that lead to the decarbonization and renaturalization of our energy sector, our land-use sector and our financial sector.

All corners of society, from government to business to local communities and Indigenous Peoples, have to work together in just and equitable ways to urgently solve the climate and biodiversity emergency. We are a part of nature, and if we protect nature, we protect ourselves. We do not protect ourselves with dangerous climate lies like offsets.

An abridged version of this opinion piece is also published by the World Economic Forum as part of the Sustainable Development Impact Summit. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Jennifer Morgan is State Secretary and Special Envoy for International Climate Action at the Federal Foreign Office in Germany. She is a leading expert on climate issues and civil society advocacy and was voted by apolitical as one of the world's top 20 most influential people in climate policy. Previously, she was the Executive Director of Greenpeace and has held a series of directorship roles at NGOs, including World Resources Institute; E3G and WWF.

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