Green Technology

Carbon Offsets Are Unscalable, Unjust, & Unfixable — Joe Romm

Joseph Romm is a leading expert on climate solutions and clean energy who has spent much of his career working to communicate with the public about these topics. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT and has authored countless articles and 10 books on the topics of climate change, clean energy, and communications.

In 2009, TIME named him a “Hero of the Environment” and “the Web’s most influential climate change blogger.” He served as the chief science advisor for the Emmy-award-winning series “Years of Living Dangerously.” His book Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know was called “the best single source primer on the state of climate change” by New York Magazine.

In July of this year, Joe Romm joined the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media as a senior research fellow. Michael E. Mann, the director of PCSSM, welcomed him with this statement:

Joe Romm on carbon offsets

Joe Romm via YouTube

“We welcome Dr. Romm to Penn and we look forward to working with him in advancing the study and practice of effective climate communication. I have personally known Joe for nearly two decades, since the time I was an early career climate scientist who found myself caught in the crosshairs of the climate change denial machine.

“Joe was one of the first scientists to confront industry-funded disinformation and taught us valuable lessons about science communication, lessons which I’ve taken to heart as I have focused more of my own time and effort on climate communication. We are now at a major crossroads when it comes to urgency of climate action, and I couldn’t be more delighted that Joe is joining us at Penn at this critical juncture in the climate battle.”

One of the first things Joe Romm did after he joined PCSSM was publish a resarch paper with this rather provocative title: “Carbon offsets are unscalable, unjust, and unfixable — and a threat to the Paris Agreement.” In it, Romm doesn’t pull any punches. He basically calls the whole idea of carbon offsets a scam designed to let polluters pretend to be doing something about their climate killing activities while actually doing nothing at all.

In other words, carbon offsets are just another in a never-ending chain of things designed to let fossil fuel companies keep adding unsustainable levels of carbon dioxide, methane, and other climate-killing emissions to the atmosphere while hiding behind a smokescreen of promises and perceived good intentions. Romm’s paper is 50 pages long, so you will be happy to know we will only hit the highlights here.

What Are Carbon Offsets?

Romm writes that the U.S. Government Accountability Office describes carbon offsets as “reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from an activity in one place to compensate for emissions elsewhere.” In a typical transaction, a developed country or company — instead of reducing its own heat-trapping CO2 emissions — pays a developing country to reduce its emissions by an equivalent amount instead. If the buyer purchases enough offsets to cover all of its emissions, then it calls itself “carbon neutral” or “net zero.”

Typical projects are deploying clean energy, planting new trees, and paying people not to cut down trees. But research on offsets shows “the large majority are not real or are over-credited or both,” Dr. Barbara Haya, director of The Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, said earlier this year. These problems pervade every major offset program.

Consider the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the world’s largest carbon offsets program, which was launched in 2006. Over 50% of CDM offsets came from China and nearly 70% from China and India. Studies have found the vast majority of those credits were not genuine. Either the projects would have happened anyway (without the offset money) or they were credited for far more reductions than actually occurred, or both.

Also, since 2006, China has built so many coal plants, its yearly CO2 emissions increased by nearly as much as the U.S. emits today. India’s emissions doubled. So, not only was there little actual clean development, but those offsets were sold to developed countries, letting them generate as much as 6 billion tons of CO2 more than they would have otherwise. Too often, offsets cause pollution and discourage genuine CO2 reductions, Romm writes.

A Growing Consensus

Romm notes there is a growing consensus that companies should not be using any offsets they buy from developing countries to make claims about emissions reductions or net-zero emissions. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which works with thousands of companies, said in 2021, “Net-zero targets are mostly greenwash” that focus on “offsets instead of reducing emissions.” This growing consensus is very visible in the price history since June 2022 of Nature-Based Global Emissions Offsets (NGEOs), such as forest conservation or restoration projects.

carbon offsets market

Credit: PCSSM

The UN is considering changes to the carbon offsets program, but Romm believes they will make it easier for developed countries to reach their Paris climate commitments while making it harder for developing countries to do so. Dr. Haya said recently, “I don’t think it’s fair and I don’t think it’s what we should be doing.” This burden shifting is also not popular with most developing countries. Therefore, we are unlikely to see it happen at scale until those carbon offsets are much more expensive than they are today.

In 2023, the World Bank modeled authorized offsets and found they may well exceed $100 a ton. A high price is especially likely because there are far fewer “negative emissions” — tons of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) — available than were expected. “Carbon dioxide removal is not a current climate solution,” argues a 2023 Nature article. If we don’t “drastically reduce emissions first,” CDR “will be next to useless.”

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is unlikely to generate significant negative emissions by 2050, and scaling it up may well increase global warming for decades. At a June 2023 Direct Air Capture Summit hosted by industry leader Climeworks, the company’s co-founder and co-CEO Jan Wurzbacher “told the crowd his company could see its prices remain as high as $300 [per ton] by 2050.”

For most countries, achieving net-zero emissions in the coming decades will involve fewer purchases of carbon removal and more pursuit of domestic emissions reductions, which will likely become more expensive over time. Selling off the easiest emission reductions cheaply now may be a counter-productive policy for any country.

The Takeaway

There’s more — lots more — in the Joe Romm paper. But what little of it we have seen so far is enough to show that carbon offsets are a shell game — a system constructed to allow the biggest polluters to just keep on doing what they have always done, which is dump millions upon millions of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere with no regard for the consequences.

Carbon offsets are an attempt to fix the basic problem, which is that the world operates on an economic system that imposes little or no costs for polluting the environment. It reminds me of a quote by Mother Jones, one of the fiercest proponents of “workness,” who said, “I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.”

The fossil fuel industry is shining us all on with scheme after scheme to allow it to continue extracting coal, oil, and methane from the Earth and selling it for another few decades or centuries because they have a perceived duty to maximize shareholder value. One might think the law would impose an additional duty — to not destroy the environment that sustains us — but they don’t teach such “woke” nonsense in business school.

Until they do, humanity is likely doomed to disappear from the face of the Earth within the next century or so. It is startling to realize how willing we are to be bamboozled by charlatans and crooks.


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