The United Nations, through its Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC), has launched a carbon offsets initiative called Climate Neutral Now. The website says that to “keep our communities healthy and safe we need a climate neutral world”, which requires “action from all of us”.
The UNFCCC argues elsewhere on the site that:
Offsetting, after measuring and reducing, is key for achieving a climate neutral world. Offsetting benefits the whole planet, not just the country in which the emissions are reduced.
We would argue (as have others) that the planet has not and will not notice offsets at all, and that they are akin to indulgences sold by the church centuries ago.
First, though, how does the UNFCCC offset initiative work?
Measure, reduce, offset
The Climate Neutral Now three-step initiative is quite straightforward (unlike offsetting itself).
First, you measure your climate footprint. This is done, according to the site, “to understand your impact on climate change and to be able to identify areas where you can reduce them”. There’s an online calculator to measure your climate footprint.
Second, through the measurement process, you can identify the causes and sources of your emissions, “as well as opportunities to reduce these emissions”. The site refers those seeking to measure emissions to the International Carbon Reduction and Offsetting Alliance or ICROA.
Finally, under the offsets initiative, you can offset what can’t be reduced with UN Certified Emission Reductions. These certified emission reductions are produced through the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), one of three market-based flexibility mechanisms established under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
But the Clean Development Mechanism has problems.
The Clean Development Mechanism
Under the CDM, developed states invest in emissions reduction projects in developing states and gain certified credits. CDM project types include agriculture, biomass energy, CO₂ capture and usage, energy efficiency, reforestation and afforestation.
You can calculate your emissions and buy these certified emission reduction credits for cancellation (that is, taking them out of circulation so that they are no longer usable) on the site.
However, the CDM has several difficulties when it comes to tackling climate change.
For example, it can be argued that offsetting does not reduce emissions but allows developed states and corporations in those states to purchase credits from projects in developing states and avoid domestic action on emissions reductions.
Put another way, CDM projects risk “non-additionality” – that corporations will benefit from projects that don’t actually result in an overall reduction in emissions, or that a project will reduce emissions but that other emissions will increase elsewhere (carbon leakage). It can also be argued that CDM projects have benefited only a small number of developing states (China, for example, and India) through hosting a majority of the CDM projects.
Help me to be good, but not just yet
The UNFCCC has presumably launched this offsets initiative in part to give importance to the role individuals can play in addressing the climate change problem – and offsetting is a form of individual action.
Much has been made of individual action as a means of dealing with the climate change problem, but – again – what you do personally doesn’t on its own make the least bit of difference.
Put another way, the things individuals do in their daily lives – offsets – taken by themselves, have no effect. The planet doesn’t notice. It is collective action that matters, or what billions of people do.
Environmental economist Gernot Wagner argues: “The changes necessary are so large and so profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action.” Instead, what is needed is policy that motivates major industrial sectors to reduce emissions and use resources more efficiently.
Just as the planet won’t notice individual action, it also won’t notice offsetting for the same reason.
The best argument against offsetting has been put by James Hansen (channelling, to some extent, St Augustine):
The public must be firm and unwavering in demanding ‘no offsets’ … [offsets] are like the indulgences that were sold by the church in the Middle Ages. People of means loved indulgences, because they could practise any hanky-panky or worse, then simply purchase an indulgence to avoid punishment for their sins …
And Hansen concludes with this:
Anybody who argues for offsets today is either a sinner who wants to pretend he or she has done adequate penance or a bishop collecting moola.
This argument, of course, extends to corporations, although such entities are increasingly covered under carbon pricing regimes in multiple jurisdictions at the national and state or provincial level.
Focus on the real game
Offsetting is a diversion from the main game: legislated mitigation (price and quantity of emissions reductions) and adaptation. This will be the focus of the climate change talks in Paris later this year.
In terms of mitigation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2013 referred for the first time to a global cumulative carbon budget. The IPCC found that, to hold global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels (the limit agreed by most states as a global warming “safety threshold”), total emissions cannot exceed one trillion tonnes of carbon.
The Trillionth Tonne website continually updates estimates of current total cumulative emissions from fossil fuel use, cement production and land-use change since industrialisation began at about 575 gigatonnes. Based on emission trends, it currently expects the trillionth tonne to be emitted in late November 2038.
It’s hard to see how voluntary individual carbon offsets can put even a dent in this trend.
The UNFCCC website spruiking the virtues of carbon offsetting features testimonials from the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and the actor Edward Norton, who recently starred in the movie Birdman with Michael Keaton. Keaton’s character in the film – the Birdman – seems to think he can fly. The UNFCCC seems to think that offsetting is a key to achieving emissions reductions.
It’s a Birdman-like thought.
David and Rebecca will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 2 and 3pm AEDT on Wednesday, October 28, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.
Developed nations would need to double or triple their current efforts to limit global warming to a “safe” level of 2⁰C. That’s the finding of a study published today in Nature Climate Change assessing countries’ post-2020 climate pledges ahead of December’s international climate summit in Paris.
As an example, Australia would need to reduce emissions 50-66% below 2010 levels to be considered to be doing its fair share (its current target, when converted to 2010, is a 23-25% reduction).
Countries have agreed to limit warming to 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels. But how do we divide up the necessary reductions in emissions fairly?
Developing nations often argue that developed nations need to do more, because they are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions historically.
This new paper shows that these debates about fairness will inevitably cause us to go beyond 2⁰C, however it also shows a way to fix the problem.
Are we on track for 2⁰C?
How much the world warms is determined by the total amount of greenhouse gases that go into the atmosphere, what’s known as the “carbon budget”. To have a 66% chance of limiting warming to 2⁰C the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that after 2011 we can only emit 1,010 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases.
Converting the budget to yearly emissions is not easy. However, by analysing hundreds of emissions scenarios, the new study found that to meet the carbon budget, global emissions need to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2030.
We are not on track for this.
A fair share
There is a whole raft of reasons why countries’ emission reduction efforts are insufficient. One key reason is the disagreement over what constitutes a “fair” share of the global emissions-reduction effort.
In the latest stage of climate negotiations, almost every country has pledged some form of post-2020 emissions reduction target. These pledges are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs, and reflect what countries see as their own fair share.
Countries’ views differ widely, however, they can be (crudely) simplified to two broad approaches (a similar simplification is found in another recent study).
Both approaches propose that countries emit roughly equal greenhouse gas emissions per person by some future date (say 2050 or 2070). “Distributive justice” proposes that all countries start from the present and converge at some point at the same level of per-capita emissions.
However “corrective justice” seeks to correct the unfair distribution in past emissions by requiring higher historical emitters to emit less per capita in the future (and perhaps even produce negative emissions). This essentially means that all nations have an equal sum of past and future per-person emissions.
The table below shows the emissions-reduction targets required of G20 countries from either a distributive or corrective justice approach (following the specific methodology described in the study).
Which should we choose?
In practice, each country chooses the justice approach that best meets its national interests. China, having a large population and low historical emissions, supports a corrective justice approach.
Australia, with a small population but high historical emissions, should prefer a distributive justice approach (although in practice Australia has never explicitly expressed a principled view of either type).
There can be no global consensus on which form of justice is most just. Unfortunately, when every country accepts to the 2⁰C target but opts for a preferential treatment of justice, global warming exceeds 2⁰C.
One way to fix this is for countries to accept more stringent targets, providing that their main trading partners are willing to do the same, in relative terms.
Australia has argued that its climate policies and emissions reduction targets are adequate because they are comparable to those of other countries — a claim that has been examined and debunked. Following this logic, Australia should be willing to increase its targets if its peers accept to do the same.
Choose your own climate pledge
Such logic underpins a new approach to international emissions reduction allocations: “diversity-aware leadership”. Under this approach, one country becomes a leader by adopting ambitious targets.
Other countries match the effort, calculating commensurate targets based on either distributive or corrective justice approaches (whichever results in a more generous allocation for each country). Ultimately, no country does any “more” than any other country, and each country is free to choose its own definition of what is fair.
Obviously, not every country is a candidate for leadership — only a major economic power with strong geopolitical pulling power. The list is probably restricted to G20 countries.
How does this play out?
Potential leadership scenarios for the EU, the US, China and Australia would be:
To be deemed a leader, the EU would need to pledge a target of -61% on 2010 levels by 2030. To match that effort we would see these targets: US -59%, China -6% and Australia -50%
As leader, the US would pledge -75% on 2010 levels by 2030. From this we would see: EU -50%, China -4% and Australia -65%
A Chinese leader would pledge -32% on 2010 levels by 2030. In turn we would see: US -41%, EU -41% and Australia -30%
An Australian leadership pledge would be -66% on 2010 levels by 2030. Matching this would require: US -75%, EU-50% and China -4%.
How this looks on global pie charts:
The table below compares some targets actually proposed by countries with those consistent with a fair share under the different approaches.
Clearly, none of these country targets currently meets the criteria of a fair share, and they are all well below what might be required for leadership.
Australia needs to double or triple efforts
To claim good global citizenship, as a minimum, Australia would need to increase from 25% to 30% its current target (note: the announced Australian target uses a 2005 baseline, whereas this is compared to a 2010 baseline).
However, this would ignore the benefits Australia has gained from past emissions. Taking this into consideration, Australia’s fair share would represent a doubling (and almost tripling) of its current target. Similarly, Australia would need to almost triple its effort to be considered a climate leader.
In July 2015, the government’s advisory body, the Climate Change Authority, recommended that Australia commit to a target of -40% to -60% on 2000 levels by 2030. On 2010 levels this equates to a target of -41% to -61%. Although such a commitment would represent a significant increase in ambition, it still falls short of what might be required against the above criteria.