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How to fix the broken carbon-offset system

First, don’t allow the fossil fuel industry to buy offsets – and create fair carbon-storage payments for people who live and work most closely with forests

carbon offset

Daimen Hardie is co-founder of Community Forests International.

In March, Jim Hourdequin, the CEO of Lyme Timber – one of the world’s largest suppliers of carbon offsets to companies like Chevron – admitted that lax standards have allowed his forestry company to earn US$53 million over the past two years without making significant changes to business as usual. The company received offset payments from polluting industries on projects that, as Bloomberg put it, “don’t actually change the way forests are managed, and therefore do little to help the climate.”

Carbon offsets have a bad name for a good reason. Some of the biggest polluters exploit offsets purely to avoid making cuts to their emissions. And some of the biggest offset sellers rake in profits while failing to achieve equitable or even tangible climate benefits. With a fifth of the world’s biggest companies already committed to United Nations net-zero targets, and virtually all relying on offsets to reach that goal, the growing climate accountability across the private sector is now driving growth of a carbon-offset industry that has its own climate accountability problems.

At the same time, offsets are one of the only opportunities for financing the critical work of ecosystem care and climate repair today. In Atlantic Canada, for example, which receives less than 3% of environmental funding nationally and experiences low rural incomes coupled with high rates of clearcut forestry, the non-profit I work for has used carbon partnerships with sustainable architecture and film companies to protect some of the region’s last carbon-rich and biodiverse forests.

This mix of failures and redeeming opportunities reflects the broader complexity of transitioning to a low-carbon economy, as well as society’s relatively novice response to the climate crisis. We’re still learning and adapting. It also, however, reflects the depth of exploitation that companies are capable of when market-based mechanisms are deployed in absence of strong policy and regulatory oversight.

Almost 20 years since the first carbon-offset mechanisms emerged, it is becoming increasingly difficult to forgive these ongoing failures. Carbon offsetting can hope to remain reputable today only if its two most harmful pitfalls are addressed: the failure to ensure significant reductions in overall emissions in first priority, and the failure to achieve genuine carbon-storage outcomes in an equitable way. In a bid to help solve these challenges and promote even greater investment in carbon offsetting, Mark Carney – the former governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England – made bold promises at the COP26 climate conference to grow the voluntary market to US$100 billion per year by the end of this decade. Less than two years later, the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets is being scaled back. Now rebranded as the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market, the initiative is grappling with the same regulatory shortfalls that have plagued offsets since their invention.

In the meantime, carbon markets are growing in Canada and around the world. According to Refinitiv, a subsidiary of the London Stock Exchange, the voluntary market reached a record high US$1 billion last year, while more established compliance markets surpassed US$850 billion.

Pioneering Papua New Guinea bans new carbon deals

Offsetting was popularized by the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in 2005. The treaty recognized that wealthier countries are historically responsible for climate change, while nations throughout the Majority World – a term that replaces the expressions “developing world” or “Global South” to better recognize that this is where 80% of humanity lives – suffer the majority of negative impacts. All signatories set equalized emission reduction targets, recognizing their differentiated climate responsibilities, and a mechanism was created – offsetting – where those states failing to meet their climate goals could make up for it by transferring a proportionate amount of wealth to countries that were beating their own national targets and picking up the slack in the fight against climate change.

Papua New Guinea, an island state home to some of Earth’s largest remaining tropical forests cared for generatively by Indigenous communities for over 50,000 years, was positioned to be one of those countries that could exceed national targets. At the same 2005 UN climate summit in which offsetting was enacted, the government of Papua New Guinea put forward the first-ever proposal to store additional carbon by protecting exceptionally biodiverse and carbon-rich forests. They invited high-polluting states to pay for tropical forest protection to not only help meet global emission reduction targets but also replace the financial losses their country would face by deferring timber harvests – revenues that the country needed to take care of its people.

This April, Papua New Guinea’s minister of environment enacted a moratorium on new voluntary carbon-offset projects in the country. Civil society watchdogs identified major weaknesses and loopholes in projects being developed there and raised concerns that the exploitative history of logging interests infringing on the rights of Indigenous people was now simply being perpetuated by carbon project developers. The government has banned all new voluntary carbon projects until laws can be enacted that properly safeguard the rights of the people who have lived and worked with forests forever.

Carbon offsets have a bad name for a good reason.

Should we throw out all carbon offsets? Not quite yet. Transitioning millions of hectares of land and millions of jobs toward the protection and restoration of Earth’s natural life-support systems is fundamental to halting the climate crisis. Carbon-offset frameworks can aid in that transition, by channelling wealth into carbon-storage livelihoods like climate-focused forestry, farming and conservation. But we need fair carbon-storage payments that directly compensate the people who live and work most closely with the land, enabling them to make decisions optimized for carbon drawdown, and we need to decouple the source of those payments from the continued emissions of the highest-polluting industries.

Oil and gas companies, for example, shouldn’t be allowed to participate in offset programs; they should just be required to reduce their emissions. Analysis from Oxfam found that it would take a forest the size of Ghana to offset just 15% of BP’s ongoing emissions by 2050. That’s a single company and doesn’t take into account BP’s historical emissions, which also require reparations. There is literally not enough planet for the highest-polluting industries to offset their way out of the climate crisis.

Hope in first-ever citizen forest carbon program in Canada

Over the past decade, our small team at Community Forests International has worked on the forest and people side of the climate equation. We’ve developed new approaches to forestry that maximize carbon storage and climate resilience, we’ve informed policy improvements at the provincial and national scale, and we’ve developed novel forest carbon projects.

This summer, with collaborators across a community of more than 80,000 rural small forest owners in the Maritime provinces and partners at the Natural Capital Exchange (NCX) – a leading carbon marketplace dedicated to democratizing forest carbon markets – we will be enrolling tens of thousands of acres into the first-ever citizen forest carbon program in Canada.

In a region with some of the most intense forest cutting and lowest incomes nationally, this reflects the potential in transition pathways that centre the people most affected – in this case rural, forest-dependent communities and economies. It is creating entirely new climate-focused forest occupations and incomes for people who can now go to work storing more carbon in the forests they care for.

It would take a forest the size of Ghana to offset just 15% of BP’s ongoing emissions by 2050. There is literally not enough forest for polluting industries to offset their way out of the crisis.

There are countless opportunities like this, and carbon offsets are a relatively small part of the story. But the work of nature-based carbon storage, like virtually all climate solutions, requires far greater investment than it is currently afforded – and investment that is unconflicted by the ongoing climate damages of the most polluting industries. Otherwise, these solutions will fail to produce their promised results on a scale and timeline that is meaningful in the global climate crisis. Or the positive measures that society takes to remunerate ecosystem care in one sector will be cancelled out by damages in another – the worst possible outcome of carbon offsetting.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, published in February, as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” The window is closing on limiting planetary heating to 1.5°C. Global emissions must peak by 2025 and then plummet, while at the same time forests and other ecosystems must be protected and restored to their full carbon-sequestration capacity by 2030.

What type of world will we face toward the end of this decade? A brighter one, if we make full use of all possible climate solutions today, including carbon offsetting. But it requires us to remember that tools like carbon offsets were only ever invented to enable a transition – not to delay it. In the words of Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, “the best offset is the one you do not need.”

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