While researching ways to reduce our workplace emissions, we started to ponder the question of carbon credits. For those new to the topic, these can be seen as a kind of environmental currency used to offset greenhouse gas emissions produced by industry, governments, transportation systems, etc. For example: if our office doesn’t manage to reduce our footprint to net zero through site or operational changes, we have the option to purchase carbon credits – say, by donating to a group that plants trees. Our investment serves to offset the emissions that remain on our balance sheet. That’s a highly simplified explanation, but you get the idea.
Sometimes the purchase of credits has been compared to the sale of indulgences during the Reformation. The latter wasn’t officially sanctioned by the religious authorities, but that didn’t matter to unscrupulous clergy and their anxious clients. Indulgences were a kind of monetary plea bargain – for a fee, people could reduce their penalties in the next life for wrongdoing committed in this one. In some cases, it discouraged them from actually changing their ways for the better, since people believed they could always buy their way out of a trip to purgatory.
Critics of the carbon credit economy see it as analogous to the sale of indulgences, pointing to large polluters who buy carbon credits on the open market to enhance their brands while continuing to pollute with abandon. Credits have now become a tradable commodity like any other; large financial institutions buy, sell, and accept them as collateral. This monetization of carbon brings along serious ethical questions, since other values may be sacrificed in the rush to create capital.
We discovered very quickly that carbon reduction projects can vary widely in their integrity. How do projects get verified, and how secure are they? In the multi-billion dollar carbon marketplace, you can actually sell offsets that haven’t been created yet – a kind of carbon promissory note. What assurance can be given that those offsets will actually be delivered? How does the contribution of a given endeavour get quantified, and by whom? What double effects can occur from these projects, and who monitors them?
This last question is central to the documentary “The Carbon Rush” (http://www.thecarbonrush.net/). In it, the filmmakers ask, “What happens when we manipulate markets to solve the climate crisis? Who stands to gain and who stands to suffer?” The film describes palm oil plantations and hydroelectric projects in countries where Indigenous peoples are poisoned, displaced or assassinated, all to benefit polluters elsewhere. The real and disastrous impacts of these “green gold” projects go largely unexamined by those investing in them from afar.
Carbon credits aren’t ethically neutral, and it’s clear that we need to look carefully before using this option. We’ll talk about this again in a future post. In the meantime, check out this simple, interactive video game on “The Carbon Rush” website. It graphically illustrates some of the consequences of badly-executed carbon offset projects: