9 – Zero means zero – Carbon offsets are a scam – People power can demand real change

By Jesse D. Palmer

Sometimes when it seems impossible — just in the nick of time — broad-based cultural and political movements can get traction. We’ve reached a breaking point with few options — ruin or zero emissions and a just transition away from fossil fuels and eco-destroying activities. The social and ecological disruption resulting from climate change poses the gravest threat to humans and other species. All movements for civil and economic justice are threatened if drought, crop failures, ocean acidification and sea level rise displace billions of people, which is our future unless dramatic change happens soon. 

Given the overwhelming global scale of the crisis, it is easy to feel discouraged, resigned, doomed or to just to slip into denial. These psychological reactions are understandable, but what we need instead is engagement, mass organizing, and a focus on what can be done to reduce emissions on all levels simultaneously — technologically, globally, individually and in our local community. 

The world’s economic and political systems have their own internal logic and are controlled by tiny minorities whose wealth and power rely on fossil fuels and maintaining current consumption and engineering. These systems have not, will not and cannot reduce emissions. 

Because there are viable technological alternatives to fossil fuels, there’s no reason for us to be on a path to extinction except greed, shortsightedness and our collective inability to force the system to serve the interests of the majority of the world’s people and live within the limits of Earth’s life support systems.

Business as usual will surely destroy us. There are hints of hope — students protesting, divestment campaigns, a few more bikes and windmills. But progress is painfully slow and it feels like it’s always easier to focus on the crisis of the moment — the pandemic, war, right wing nut jobs — and avoid thinking about a problem so big, long-term and scary that it can feel like an invisible background to everything. 

Reducing and ending emissions is different from a lot of mainstream discussion of climate change, which emphasizes achieving “net zero” emissions using “carbon offsets” — concepts that would be laughable greenwashing bullshit it they weren’t catching on so widely in a way that distracts from the urgent need to cut emissions in the first place.

A carbon offset is the idea that a company or country can keep emitting carbon if they pay someone else to either reduce their emissions (think replacing a coal plant with a windmill), or invest money in a project to remove carbon from the atmosphere (think planing trees.) If a company buys offsets, they can claim they are carbon neutral or net zero even while they continue to emit the same amount of carbon. If you hear net zero, carbon offsets or carbon neutral, what you are hearing is that someone is not reducing their own emissions. 

Offsets may work on paper, but they are unlikely to work in real life for numerous reasons. This is particularly when the offset pays to pull CO2 out of the air by planting trees etc. Are these trees just replacing something humans deforested? Will the trees even survive after the company planting them sells the offsets? A lot of tree planting projects are planting the wrong trees in the wrong places — reducing biodiversity, speeding extinction and making ecosystems less resilient. (See NYT 3/14/22.)  Projects in the global south to offset emissions from the north can reinforce colonialism taking land from poor people. Trees are at best a temporary solution, since burning fossil fuels moves carbon that has been buried underground for millions of years to the surface and into the air. When the new trees die and decompose, the added carbon stays in the biosphere.

If someone else is taking fossil fuels off-line that is good, but it would be even better if the offset purchaser took their emissions off-line as well. Offsets suffer from fraud, the profit motive, and ultimately their main purpose is to justify continued emissions whereas what we desperately need is zero emissions. 

Movements for climate justice need to get beyond just being against stuff — blocking pipelines and demanding divestment — and start supporting tangible, specific alternatives to the status quo like community-controlled wind, solar and green alternatives to emissions. When we’re stuck in opposition mode, we’re letting the system set the agenda and define the battles to be fought, which puts us in a weak position. It is much better for us to propose and support a world we want to live in, and let the oil companies try to stop us.

Many climate activists risk falling into outdated rituals of NIMBY thinking that oppose all development and change without thoughtfully weighing what is being proposed against what it aims to replace. This can end up supporting the suicidal status quo by stopping or slowing down the broad-based technological change that is urgently necessary to get to zero emissions. It is naive to argue that we’ll get there through some sort of abstinence — that we can all just stop burning fossil fuels by giving up electricity, motorized transportation, mass production, etc. To me this is another form of psychological denial — one particularly popular with radicals and alternative types — that avoids dealing with the climate crisis while pretending to take it seriously. 

To the contrary, there is no realistic way to convince or force everyone to go cold turkey. Focusing on theory-based utopias that don’t translate to reality wastes what time we have left. The last 35 years have seen no emissions reduction between corporate greenwashing on one side, and activists engaging in magical thinking on the other. More than half of all human CO2 emissions have happened since 1988 when it became clear that global warming was a problem. Emissions keep going up when they could have been going down for the last few decades if practical measures had been taken.

Achieving zero emissions requires very difficult compromises — building massive amounts of new stuff that is less harmful than the stuff people use to meet their needs now. The new stuff is not going to be harm-free or perfect but it can be less harmful than doing nothing. Rather than demand zero technology and zero development, we’re going to have to strive for zero emissions. Every mine or factory involves ecological harm but they aren’t all the same. It isn’t romantic or popular, but I’m not against all mines or factories — I’m against the ones moving us towards our doom. 

Which is why it is discouraging to see climate activists opposing wind farms, transmission lines, lithium mines and solar projects for parochial reasons when much greater overall harm is presented by the decentralized world-wide emissions of our current technology.  You can’t compare a new facility with an open field— you have to compare it to the on-going specific ecological harms it can reduce or avoid.  It is hard to know, but I wonder if in a few years we find out that a lot of criticism of green technology is being secretly supported by the oil industry to cynically slow down change.

Getting to zero emissions is more than a slogan or public relations campaign. It cannot be achieved through any single shift or technology. There are only shades of gray and no simple magic answer — except that climate change only gets worse without sustained social pressure for change. And regular people like ourselves are the only hope we have.