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Carbon Offsetting/Credits - The Murky Con of Net Zero Carbon Emissions

Ship sailing past chimneys of polluting smoke.
Photo by Chris LeBoutillier

Following on from my previous post, Regardless of Whether You Believe in Climate Change You Should at Least Believe in Better Environmental Practices, I made a passing reference to the con that is carbon offsetting.

In simple terms, it allows companies to continue to produce carbon emissions so long as they fund environmentally 'friendly' initiatives elsewhere. The whole concept has matured into the Carbon Credit/Offset scheme where companies can literally buy and sell carbon credits so they can claim 'reduced carbon emissions' or even 'net zero emissions' without actually reducing emissions at all.

Ever since I first heard of the concept of carbon offsetting and how it worked, I've said it was a scam. You don't need to do any research at all to know it is. 

To make an analogy, imagine if every week I empty my household trash onto your front lawn. It's a dick move. You wouldn't like it, and you'd expect me to clean it up and to never do it again, right?

Now let's say,  not only do I not want to clean my trash up from your lawn, I also want to continue dumping my trash on your lawn... every week. So, I decide to participate in Trash Offsetting. Trash offsetting gives me the option to pay for a gardener to maintain the upkeep of some local, community parkland down the road, so it looks nice for everybody.

Fantastic! The problem of me dumping my weekly garbage onto your front lawn is now not an issue at all because my Trash Dumping Offset is now zero. My trash is still building up on your lawn but the community parkland looks amazing so everybody is happy, right?

In very simple terms that's how carbon offsetting works. It doesn't actually stop poor environmental practices since companies can just budget in the cost of carbon offsetting as an expense. At best it may reduce carbon emissions, which is the point, but not really for companies that see the expense as something to be managed rather something that shouldn't be in the budget at all - if you're not producing carbon emissions.

Even worse is the buying and selling of Carbon Credits. Companies with more carbon credits than they need to achieve a net zero rating can sell those excess credits on. Sure, that's a good thing right? We've exceeded our contribution to reducing carbon emissions by so much that we can now sell our credit to companies who aren't as good as us at achieving net zero for a profit.

Excellent, what a real incentive for companies to exceed net zero quotas! Now we have this abstract idea of 'carbon credits' that may be linked to something that is helping the planet but it doesn't really matter because we just need the credits so we can get that net zero rating.

How's that trash pile on your lawn coming along?

For some more insight into why carbon offsetting/credits don't really work as intended watch the video below by YouTuber, Belinda Carr, who has a background in architecture and building construction industry, and makes essay style videos on engineering, technology, and other issues in related fields. 


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