Climate Emergency Manchester usually focuses on the (hapless) (in-)actions of Manchester Council on climate change, but today we have been alerted to worrying proposals from Bury Council – What the devil is carbon offsetting doing in their plans?! We take a look and highlight the problems.
Bury Council are preparing to launch a public consultation about their Climate Action Strategy and Plan which features a familiar zero carbon target date of, yes you guessed it, 2038. While we haven’t reviewed Bury’s Strategy and Plan in their entirety, we were alerted to their proposals to use carbon offsetting. Oh dear. Here are a few of the problems of including this approach.
- Offsetting is a cop-out. And we don’t mean in a good way, like getting cops out of schools. The cop-out occurs if carbon offsetting deters action on reducing emissions. It can make people more relaxed about climate action because they think carbon offsets will mop up the mess at the end of the day. This is the wrong message. We need aggressive action to reduce emissions quickly, not a relaxed approach that favours the long term use of dubious offsets. (1)
- Offsetting keeps failing. Carbon offsetting creates carbon credits for ‘emissions reductions’ and sometimes ‘carbon removals’ that are made using flawed methods. For example, when the EU used carbon offsetting in its carbon market, most of the offsets it got via the United Nations were deficient. So, offsets can hinder climate policy more than they help, and sometimes people are happy to keep climate policy in a state of failure (for example, the international aviation industry is using cheap offsets to avoid taking more serious actions).
- Renewable energy offsets won’t remove carbon dioxide. Bury mention two offset types, one of which is about generating renewable energy. This won’t help Bury achieve ‘net zero’ emissions. Why? Because however much Bury is emitting in 2038 – and we hope it is very little indeed – its remaining emissions can only ‘net’ at zero if carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere to compensate. Solar panels and wind turbines are all pretty and nice, but they do not remove CO2 from the atmosphere. (2)
- Tree planting might not work either. The other offset option Bury’s strategy mentions is tree planting. Unlike wind turbines, trees can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as CO2 gets sequestered in woody biomass and in soil. Great, but hold on a minute. Trees take a long time to grow, so the work they may do can take a long time to have effects on the climate system. Trees can die or get cut down or get submerged by rising seas. If trees are inappropriately planted on peatland they can release more carbon than they store. If trees are relied on too much, there won’t be enough land available for trees to do the emissions removal work that people like to think offsets can do.
- Offsets struggle with attribution claims. Bury might not be able to take the credit for emissions reductions or removals that have been achieved through offsets linked to actions in other local authorities or other countries. If Bury declares carbon neutrality because of actions in some other local authority or some other country, then that’s odd, right? Offsetting can easily get caught up in a chain of dodgy claims about causality and bickering about whose emissions reductions belong to who and who gets to claim the credit and who does not (the emission reduction or removal cannot be Bury’s if it is simultaneously someone else’s).
Bury’s Climate Strategy and Plan remain drafts, for discussion and consultation. Its specific proposals for offsets are to explore this option and to ask central government for further funding and research into carbon offsetting. That would mean a Labour-controlled council asking a Tory government to help them pursue a neoliberal strategy wrapped up in failures, obfuscations and hindrances to climate action. A strange look. A better option would be to realise quickly that carbon offsetting is unlikely to play an effective role in climate strategies and plans. Bury, ditch this component and move on.
(1) Bury proposes that carbon offsets will only be used to compensate for ‘residual’ emissions that cannot be reduced to zero. But this category is extremely vague and including this means inviting all-comers to claim that emissions from their sector are residual or too hard to get rid of. When the emphasis should be on zero across the board, offsets get played as an escape card. Don’t let it get played.
(2) Carbon offsets from renewable energy claim to reduce emissions compared to what the emissions would have been like in an alternative, hypothetical baseline scenario. That is an emissions reduction compared to a situation that might have been worse, not a removal of CO2, and as such renewable energy offset credits do not contribute to a scientifically informed view of ‘net zero’ emissions (“Net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are achieved when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period” IPCC Special Report page 23).
Robbie is a core member of Climate Emergency Manchester.