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The Carbon Offset Mirage: Smoke, Mirrors, and Greenwashing? Let me explain.

I had a spirited debate with a good friend last week on carbon offsets.  It would be good to put my thoughts out for the public. Here goes…

Climate change or as I prefer to call it climate chaos, is tightening its grip on our planet. Naturally, the appeal of carbon offsetting has skyrocketed. At first glance, it’s a neat solution: emit here, offset there. But beneath the appealing veneer of “going green,” a storm of controversy brews (storm, get it? 😉). Is carbon offsetting the climate equivalent of buying indulgences, or does it have a genuine place in our climate solution arsenal? 

Carbon Offsetting: The Easy Way Out?

Carbon offsetting seems almost too good to be true. Had a long-haul flight? No worries, just plant a few trees, and you’re back in Mother Nature’s good books. But let’s be real. You can’t just swipe your credit card, buy some ‘green credits’, and undo the environmental damage. The devil is in the details—or in this case, in shady practices like questionable additionality and murky accounting.

Additionality: Or, “Would You Have Done It Anyway?”

One of the loudest criticisms lobbed at carbon offsetting is the issue of additionality. Think of it this way: If a billionaire donates to a charity after getting a huge tax incentive, was he really being altruistic? Similarly, if a project funded by carbon offsets would’ve happened anyway without the extra cash from offsetting, where’s the real benefit?

Reforestation projects, for instance, are notorious for this. Some forests tagged for these offsets might never have seen an ax. They’re just sitting there, looking pretty and soaking up CO2, but the funds meant to “save” them were perhaps redundant from the start.

“Trust Us, We’re Green”: The Transparency Sham

Just because something is labeled green doesn’t mean it’s genuinely eco-friendly. Despite standards like the Verified Carbon Standard and the Gold Standard, the wild west of carbon offsets is rife with projects of questionable merit. Remember the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol? It ended up endorsing projects that, in some cases, were about as environmentally friendly as a coal mine in a national park.

Here are some examples:

  1. Large Hydroelectric Dams: Hydroelectric projects, especially large dams, have often been approved under the CDM. While these projects indeed produce renewable energy, they also have significant environmental and social impacts. Large reservoirs can lead to deforestation, disrupt local ecosystems, and displace communities. Additionally, stagnant water in these reservoirs can lead to the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  2. HFC-23 Reduction Projects: Some projects focused on reducing emissions of HFC-23, a byproduct of HCFC-22 (used in refrigeration and air conditioning). While HFC-23 is a potent greenhouse gas, many argued that these projects provided excessive financial rewards compared to the actual cost of destruction. This could incentivize the production of more HCFC-22 just to gain credits from destroying the byproduct.
  3. Palm Oil Biodiesel: While biodiesel sounds environmentally friendly, the mass production of palm oil for this purpose has led to widespread deforestation, especially in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Deforestation not only releases stored carbon in trees but also destroys habitats for endangered species.
  4. Waste-to-Energy Projects: Some CDM projects involve incinerating waste to produce energy. While this process reduces methane emissions from landfills and generates power, it can also release other pollutants into the air and usually doesn’t promote waste reduction or recycling.

Note: many CDM projects did indeed lead to meaningful emissions reductions and brought valuable co-benefits to host countries. However, the examples above highlight the importance of rigorous oversight and the challenges of ensuring that environmental projects produce genuine, sustainable benefits.

Carbon Offsetting: Savior or Snake Oil?

To some, offsetting is akin to slapping a Band-Aid on a gaping wound and hoping for the best. Why bother transforming industries or lifestyles when you can just buy your way out of the guilt?

However, some see it differently. To them, carbon offsetting, though imperfect, is a bridge to a cleaner future, funding projects that otherwise might wither on the vine due to lack of resources.

The Offsetting Circus: A Glimpse

  1. Airline Offsets: Some airlines’ carbon offset programs seem more like slick PR moves than genuine attempts at environmental stewardship. They give flyers a pat on the back and a “thanks for going green” while the industry’s carbon footprint stomps onward.
  2. Corporate Virtue Signaling: While Microsoft’s pledge to be carbon negative by 2030 sounds commendable, one has to wonder: Is this commitment genuine, or just a play for good press?
  3. Renewable Energy Ruses: Funding renewable energy in developing countries sounds commendable. But when these projects are merely fronts that would’ve happened anyway, it’s less “saving the planet” and more “lining pockets.”

What do we do?

Think of the Earth as a big, beautiful house that all of us share. Every time we burn things like coal, gas, or oil, we’re producing smoke, or what scientists call carbon emissions. Just like smoke from a campfire can make it hard for us to breathe if we sit too close, this carbon “smoke” gathers up in our planet’s sky and makes the Earth warmer, much like a thick blanket. Over time, this extra warmth can hurt plants, animals, and even us! It’s crucial that we don’t make our shared home too hot and uncomfortable.

Why Offsetting Isn’t Enough

Now, some people say, “Let’s balance things out!” This idea is called “offsetting.” Imagine you made a mess in one part of our shared house but cleaned up a different part as an apology. That might seem nice, but the original mess is still there. Offsetting is like this: instead of stopping the mess (carbon emissions) in the first place, we try to make up for it somewhere else. But the real problem is still there, and our house keeps getting hotter.

The True Solution: Reducing Emissions

The best way to keep our shared house nice and comfortable is to stop making messes altogether. That means producing less smoke and reducing our carbon emissions. It’s like turning down the heat on a stove that’s too hot. By doing this, we don’t have to worry about balancing things out elsewhere because we’re tackling the problem directly. After all, if we genuinely care for our big, beautiful house, we should aim to keep it clean and comfy for everyone.  Let me be clear.  I am not saying do not offset.  Ok… I just wrote a lot saying that.

To be clear, if you are offsetting and think that is the end all solution, it isn’t.  It is only a temporary measure to be employed while working towards full on decarbonization.

Not sure where to start?  We can help 🙂

Dr. Joel Carboni

Dr. Joel Carboni is a highly respected expert in sustainable project management. He is a graduate of Ball State University and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Environment. He has over 25 years of experience in project management, including government, finance, consulting, manufacturing, and education. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and events related to project management and sustainability and has worked in more than 50 countries. In addition to serving as President Emeritus of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in the United States and being a member of the Global advisory board, Dr. Carboni is also the founder of GPM (Green Project Management) and a visiting professor at Skema Business School. He is also the GPM representative to the United Nations Global Compact, where he was a founding signatory of the Business for Peace Initiative and the Anti-Corruption call to action and a contributor to the development of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). Dr. Carboni is the creator of the PRiSM™ project delivery methodology and the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management and has written training programs on Green and Sustainable Project Management that are offered in more than 145 countries through professional training providers, business associations, and universities. He is the lead author of the book "Sustainable Project Management."

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