Carbon Neutral Isn't

Credits distract from limits to growth, power down and relocalization

Carbon credits to supposedly offset petroleum pollution are a fraud.

Paying someone to install solar panels or plant trees is a good thing, but it does not sequester fossil carbon out of the biosphere. It is physically impossible for solar panels or tree plantations to stick fossil carbon back into the crust of the Earth.

If we're going to address the scale of the energy crisis, we need to be honest enough to admit that airplane travel and burning mountains of coal and other toxic behaviors are not good for the planet, even if someone claims we can reach absolution for our sins by giving someone money.

Carbon neutrality and carbon offsets are propaganda exercises that provide the illusion that promoting efficiency and renewable energy can somehow undo the impact of burning stored solar energy from the Carboniferous era. No project - not even the best - can remove carbon from burned fossil fuels and sequester it back into the crust of the Earth. Coping with the ecological crisis would require honesty about our impact - and carbon credits or offsets are distractions that provide the illusion that we can burn finite, toxic energy sources without long term consequences.

There is no such thing as "carbon neutrality" as long as any fossil fuel is used. The "no net increase" is technical deception since there is no way to suck carbon from fossil fuel emissions out of the atmosphere and stick them back into the Earth's crust. Fancy schemes to pretend otherwise appease concerns about climate but they do not reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere.


carbon neutral: a marketing term used to entice consumers with guilty consciences. Carbon neutral claims are a form of subsidizing efficiency programs that are usually good projects, but do not capture and neutralize the carbon emitted by the original polluting activity supposedly being mitigated. Burning fossil fuels do not become "climate neutral" because the person who burned the fuel pays to subsidize installation of photovoltaic panels or other equipment in another location. Carbon neutral would be true if usage of carbon-based fuels was offset by capturing of an equivalent amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Most carbon neutral policies displace increases in combustion of carbon fuels but that merely slows the increase of atmospheric carbon (which is not "neutral").


A great parody of the carbon neutral promotion campaign is Cheat Neutral:

Cheatneutral is about offsetting infidelity. We're the only people doing it, and Cheatneutral is a joke.
Carbon offsetting is about paying for the right to carry on emitting carbon. The Carbon offset industry sold £60 million of offsets last year, and is rapidly growing. Carbon offsetting is also a joke.

Unfortunately, is not online any more, but their short video is on youtube:

"Cheat Neutral" (hilarious parody)

Also recommended is "The Story of Cap and Trade" by Annie Leonard, who is now director of Greenpeace USA.

"The Story of Cap and Trade"

The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences For Your Climate Sins

Transnational Institute
De Wittenstraat 25
1052 AK Amsterdam
The Netherlands
First published February, 2007

Corrupting the Climate Change Debate 8
The Rise and Fall of Future Forests 14
The problems with trees and light bulbs 19
Three Case Studies in the Majority World 26
India - "Rock Band Capitalist Tool For Cutting CO2" 29
Land rights in Uganda 32
Energy efficient light bulbs in South Africa 26
Celebrities and Climate Change 43
Positive responses to climate change 54
Appendix - Offsets and ‘future value accounting’ 62

In almost all cases the media promotes only the act of offsetting and not, except when responding to criticism, the less glamorous business of making lifestyle changes. Moreover, to date, there have been no offset schemes that encourage individuals to engage in collective action or political organising to bring about wider structural change.

Why it's harder than you think to pay for a carbon guilt trip
Stumping up to compensate for environmentally costly air travel is
a complicated business. Patrick Collinson investigates,,2014978,00.html

AUGUST 30, 2007 > WEB ONLY
Offsets Aren’t Enough
Two environmental groups cave in to Big Coal in Texas

Besides allowing polluters to wriggle off the hook with ease, offsets are harmful because they send a message that the community housing the coal plant isn’t worth much. It’s all well and good that NuCoastal may curtail emissions elsewhere, or trade mercury emissions credits, but that does nothing to safeguard the community where the actual power plant belches out toxins. ....

... Credit for “reducing” emissions of a toxin that harms children’s brain function, while still releasing it into the air? We might as well applaud the Bush administration for deploying smart bombs that supposedly “reduce” the number of civilians killed in air strikes.

And it’s the applause that’s disconcerting. Rather than admitting defeat--because a new coal plant, no matter the scrubber, is a loss--Public Citizen and the SEED Coalition’s language about the agreement sounds as if it was some sort of gain for the environmental movement.

The chipper press release from the groups announcing the NuCoastal agreement says, “Environmentalists applaud offsets of carbon dioxide and mercury emissions,” and that the agreement is “precedent-setting.”

This press release might as well have been written by Tony Snow for the way it obfuscates the truth about the situation. We need honesty from our leading environmental groups if we really plan to go toe-to-toe with Big Coal, not some letter from camp telling Mom everything’s fine despite a daily beating from a bully.

If we are to make any real effort at minimizing climate change, the default, mainstream approach from environmentalists has to be keeping fossil fuels in the ground, not burning them with an asterisk. But as long as our leading environmental groups continue touting offsets and emissions reductions like they’re viable solutions to our predicament, we’ll never move to a truly sustainable way of living.

We cannot rest on our laurels, or indeed our yews or oaks.
OVER THE PAST few years, the idea of carbon ‘offset’ or ‘carbon-neutral’ projects has found a large following. Show-biz celebrities, aid agencies and even financial institutions like the World Bank hail tree-planting and similar projects as a win-win-win approach to global warming. But can climate damage caused by fossil-fuel emissions really be ‘neutralised’ or ‘offset’?
The idea is simple enough: we pay someone else, somewhere else, to cover their land with trees, and they will soak up the carbon dioxide released through the emissions from our bargain flight to the sun or that flashy CD release or that big corporate conference. We can go on using fossil fuels without affecting the climate as long as we plant enough trees.
So what’s wrong with using trees to soak up greenhouse gases?
What ‘offset’ forestry does is confuse fossil carbon with biological carbon. It claims that emissions from burning oil, gas or coal can be considered equal, in climatic terms, to the biological carbon stored in a tree. One UK-based ‘carbon-neutral’ service says that it can calculate exactly how many trees someone will need to plant and tend for ninety-nine years in order to soak up the emissions generated by air travel to, say, Brussels.
The problem in reality is that carbon emissions from burned oil, gas or coal cannot be considered as equal to the same amount of biological carbon in a tree. Why not? Because there exists naturally an active carbon pool with carbon freely moving between forests, oceans and air. The fossil carbon pool, in contrast, is inert. But once out of the ground, fossil carbon joins the active carbon pool and will not go back into the fossil carbon pool for millennia. Releasing fossil carbon increases the active carbon pool, and this is the crucial difference between fossil and biological carbon.
Of course, trees can also die, at which point they release most of the carbon that they keep locked away from the atmosphere. In relation to ‘offset’ forestry, proponents assure us that they can calculate the odds and take this into consideration. Yet within scientific circles intense debate continues about whether one can actually predict over the next century, or even the next decade, the carbon fluxes of complex ecosystems.
CAN ANYONE REALLY calculate the carbon performance of a tree? Can we really guarantee how much carbon planted forests can mop up? Cambridge University landscape historian Oliver Rackham suggests that “For its practical effect, telling people to plant trees to reduce global warming is like telling them to drink more water to keep rising sea levels down.”
Even if we could accurately predict the carbon performance of a tree, just dealing with the increased carbon dioxide emissions we will generate worldwide over the next half century would require completely covering Europe – from the Atlantic to the Ural mountains – with trees. Soaking up the UK’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions would require planting an area of forest the size of Devon and Cornwall every single year – and maintaining it forever.
But carbon ‘offset’ troubles don’t end there. The Norwegian organisation The Future In Our Hands has described tree-planting projects in Uganda and Tanzania as a new form of colonialism, under which Northern companies and affluent citizens claim lands in the South to ‘compensate’ for damage caused by burning fossil fuel elsewhere. Already, monoculture plantations aimed at soaking up carbon dioxide released in the North are damaging lands essential to many peoples’ survival in Brazil, Ecuador, Uganda and Tanzania. Reports released by the World Rainforest Movement and the Forest Peoples Programme show that local and indigenous communities in Ecuador and India are paying a high price for carbon ‘offset’ projects they signed up to on the promise of jobs and development. In reality, these projects simply entrench social inequality, demand unpaid labour to fulfil communities’ contractual obligations, and further weaken traditional land rights.
Closer to home, tree planting charities are also getting the short end of the stick. They receive only a small fraction (around 2%) of the fee paid to carbon ‘offset’ services for planting a tree. According to The Observer, this amounts to approximately twelve pence out of the six pounds charged for planting the tree – certainly not enough to plant and preserve a tree for ninety-nine years.
SADLY, MUCH AS we’d all like a way to combat the ever–worsening problem of climate change, and wonderful though trees are, they do not provide a magic solution that will allow us to go on mining and burning fossil fuels. Carbon ‘offset’ projects may salve our conscience, but they won’t solve the problem of global warming. On the contrary, by creating the illusion that all is well as long as we pay a little extra, they may further delay global agreement on decisive action to avert climate change.
Jutta Kill is Climate Change Campaign Co-ordinator for FERN.
Al Gore's Carbon Solution Won't Stop Climate Change
By David Morris, AlterNet. Posted March 12, 2007.

These days, everyone thinks that carbon trading is the solution to our climate crisis -- from Congress members to Al Gore to the folks organizing the Oscars. Here's why they are wrong and what we can do instead.
At the Oscars, former Vice President Al Gore and megastar actor Leonardo DiCaprio informed a billion viewers that this was the first "green Oscar," at least with respect to global warming. The hosts had purchased sufficient greenhouse gas offsets to allow them to free the event of any responsibility for increasing greenhouse gases.
Two days later, Al Gore and emission offsets were again in the news when reports circulated that his Nashville house consumed 20 times more energy than a typical house. His spokesman responded: The Gore family had purchased green electricity and carbon offsets in sufficient quantities to render the house's net contribution to global warming as zero.
Over the succeeding weeks, a flurry of articles appeared about the growing use of carbon offsets. According to USA Today, the market for voluntary offsets in 2006 was almost 20 times greater than it was in 2004. Dwarfing this market is the market for what might be called involuntary offsets -- that is offsets purchased as part of the mandatory emissions reductions program agreed to by the 38 industrial nation signatories of the Kyoto Protocol. Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank and a major player in the global climate change game, estimates the value of carbon credits currently in circulation as $28 billion and predicts it will climb to $40 billion by 2010.
The shortcomings of current carbon trading systems are clear. As a piece in Newsweek concluded, "So far, the real winners in emissions trading have been polluting factory owners who can sell menial cuts for massive profits and the brokers who pocket fees each time a company buys or sells the right to pollute."
Currently, the link between the purchase of carbon offsets and the actual reduction of carbon emissions is highly controversial and almost impossible to verify. The process is easily manipulated. Measurement tools are remarkably primitive. Even the most basic calculations are subject to wide variations. The New Internationalist requested estimates from four reputable carbon trading companies for the number of credits a passenger would need to purchase to offset an around-the-world flight, starting and ending in London. The magazine received four answers: 4.3, 6, 8.68 and 11.63 tons.
Despite the criticisms, the concept of emissions trading continues to be vigorously supported by major U.S. environmental organizations. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, recently embraced by nine northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, allows for carbon trading, as does California's new global warming initiative. Emissions trading is at the heart of the European Union's strategy to meet its Kyoto Protocol goals. Several congressional bills embrace carbon trading to meet greenhouse gas-reduction goals.
Most environmentalists tend to agree with the assessment of Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy: "Carbon trading is a promising strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions but the current structures have serious flaws."
In other words, the system is new. As with all new systems, carbon offset trading is working out the kinks. Carbon trading 2.0 will be much better than carbon trading 1.0. Give it a chance.
I disagree. Carbon trading is not a promising strategy. Its costs outweigh its benefits. We don't need carbon trading to reduce carbon emissions. Indeed, it is likely that we will reduce carbon emissions much more without carbon trading.
Unfortunately, policymakers and environmentalists have all but wielded together the words, "cap" and "trade." They talk as if a cap cannot exist without a trading mechanism. That's not true. We can have caps without trade.
We should impose an immediate moratorium on carbon trading while imposing ever-more rigorous carbon caps. And stop the use of long-distance offsets. All offsets should be local or regional.
Why is carbon trading inherently problematic?
1. Buying offsets encourages complacency.
Those who purchase offsets believe they are doing something significant when they are not. Their sense of mission accomplished undermines their enthusiasm for real actions that require more sacrifice, which indeed, may be the key selling point for those selling voluntary offsets. As Mike Mason, Climate Care founder told the New Internationalist, "I would rather that 100 percent of people offset their emissions from flights than 50 percent of those people not fly at all."
George Monbiot, author of the terrific new book, "Heat" (the U.S. edition will be published in April by South End Press) has likened the purchase of offsets to the purchase of medieval indulgences. We sin, and we buy absolution.
Even worse, the cost of absolution is so low, little incentive exists to dissuade us from sinning again, and again. For less than the cost of a single tank of gasoline, BP allows its Australian consumers to sign up for a program in which the company offsets any carbon emitted from cars using its gasoline all year long. Environmentally speaking, one might say that at a BP station you can fill and unfill a gas tank at the same time.
Using $10 per ton of CO2 as the average offset price (current prices are as low as $3 per ton), the United States, which generates about 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, could buy complete absolution for about $50 billion a year. For that price it would announce to the world, as the Oscars did, that we are not responsible for any net new greenhouse gases. The cost is less than half the annual spending on the war in Iraq, a little over 5 percent of the Pentagon's annual budget.
2. Carbon trading is inherently susceptible to fraud and manipulation.
Carbon trading systems are devised and managed by computerized brokers who buy and sell on a global scale. Their goal is to increase the volume of trades while buying low and selling high; that is, selling credits at a price higher than they buy them. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But globalized, computerized trading is notoriously untransparent. We know that Enron and others manipulated the electricity market to create a crisis and steal billions of dollars from California households and businesses, primarily because we have tapes of Enron traders on the phone bragging about their manipulations. Yet to this day, investigators have had a hard time identifying the data trail that would prove malfeasance.
Some carbon traders guarantee to retire their credits, which is a step in the right direction. Far more will buy and sell them on a secondary market. As a secondary market emerges, as happened with currency trading in the 1980s and electricity trading in the 1990s, we will see the introduction of ever-more complex and abstract carbon-based financial instruments. And as with electricity and currency trading, an exceedingly handsome prize will go to those who can figure out how to game the system.
One large company announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol's program of allowing signatories to buy carbon offsets from developing countries while predicting that current carbon-accounting methodologies "will create other Enrons and Arthur Andersens."
The New York Times reports on a deal in which the carbon offsets for a $5 million incinerator in China were sold to European investors for $500 million. "The huge profits will be divided by the factory's owners, a Chinese government energy fund and the consultants and bankers who put together the deal from a mansion in the wealthy Mayfair district of London," the Times observes.
3. Carbon trading encourages cheating and rewards low-cost cosmetic changes while undermining higher cost innovation.
The greater the "baseline" emissions, the greater the payoff that can be derived from selling emission-reducing projects. Thus, there is a perverse incentive to emit as much greenhouse gas as possible today in order to make projects appear to be saving as much carbon as possible tomorrow.
The Dag Hammarskjold Foundation did an excellent analysis of carbon trading in its September 2006 Development Dialogue magazine. "With a bit of judicious accounting," the report found, "a company investing in foreign 'carbon-saving' projects can increase fossil emissions both at home and abroad while claiming to make reductions in both locations."
Carbon traders seek the lowest cost carbon offset. Which almost always means tree planting in some far off country, without regard to its long-term effects on the community or the environment, or a modest reduction in the emissions of a highly polluting factory in a developing nation. A company needing, or wanting, offsets may have to choose between investing a significant amount of capital that has long-term and very substantial savings, or buying much lower cost and short-term offsets. From a short-term economic perspective, the latter will always be the preferred choice. A study reported in Nature, the scientific journal, supported this proposition. It found that only 2 percent of the United Nations' trading projects involving either renewable energy or communities that follow eco-friendly practices with regard to tree cultivation and harvesting.
4. Carbon trading separates authority and responsibility, undermining coherent, holistic community-based efforts.
Globalized carbon trading lends itself to similar criticisms of globalized trade agreements: the preemption of local and national authority, the separation of those who make the decisions from those who feel the impact of those decisions, the separation of those communities that receive the benefit from those who bear the cost.
Indeed, Michael Zammit Cutajar, ex-executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has made the comparison explicit: "Establishing a robust global regime for addressing climate change is ... comparable to the creation of the international trade regime under the World Trade Organization."
The Hammarskjold Foundation offers a case study of one of the first international carbon offsets project, and its aftermath. In the late 1980s, Applied Energy Service, Inc. (AES), a U.S.-based independent power producer, had been looking for a cost-effective technique for reducing carbon dioxide emissions at a new 183-megawatt coal fired power plant in Connecticut in order to make the plant more acceptable to state regulators.
AES decided to "mitigate" the plant's carbon emissions by offering $2 million to finance 10 years' worth of "land-use activities and multiple-use forestry projects" in Guatemala. Some 40,000 small farms would plant 50 million pine and eucalyptus trees in the course of establishing 30,000 acres of community woodlots and 150,000 acres of agroforestry.
AES obtained permission to build the coal-fired power plant. But an analysis done 10 years later found that the offsets had fallen very far short of the level promised. More importantly, the project took access to the trees out of the hands of ordinary people. One result was that conflict grew between municipal and village authorities and individual landowners. Another result was increasing distrust of government forest offices. And finally, the Guatemala-based organization that was supposed to manage and monitor the project found that the level of monitoring required diverted its resources away from its more community-building projects.
As with the WTO, globalized carbon trading regimes are very susceptible to corporate influence. Which is why, despite strong opposition from environmental organizations, the EU allowed offsets to occur outside of Europe.
It is true that a ton of CO2 reduced in Africa has the same impact on the biosphere and global warming as a ton of CO2 reduced in Minneapolis. But there are other impacts that come with that reduction that have a more localized impact. Reducing carbon emissions invariably also reduces toxics that constitute a local and regional threat, like lead or mercury or benzene or arsenic or particulate matter or ground level ozone. An urban-based coal fired power plant that offsets its CO2 emissions by helping to plant trees in Africa continues to emit pollutants that adversely affect the health of local residents.
Where do we go from here?
Is there an alternative to carbon trading? Of course there is. Emissions trading itself is a relatively new policy tool. It was first used by the EPA in the late 1970s but became a key component of U.S. environmental policy in the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 when the trading of SOx emissions was allowed.
By the late 1990s the Clinton and Gore administration and major environmental organizations were pushing the use of offsets internationally at the Kyoto negotiations. As Michael Zammit Cutajar, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has said, the carbon trading approach embodied in Kyoto was "made in the U.S.A."
But the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol is only about a year old. The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme came on line only in 2005. The Northeast Greenhouse Gas Initiative and California's low carbon initiative are still in the rule-making stage. There is plenty of time to step back from the growing reliance on the purchase and trading of long-distance offsets.
One alternative is good old regulation, which contrary to the popular wisdom, has worked very well, especially when the regulations are performance-based. The United States required 23 years to eliminate leaded gasoline, in part because it created a lead trading program. Without allowing trading, Japan eliminated lead in 10 years and China in three. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulation, enacted in 1975, did not allow trading but effectively doubled auto efficiency within 10 years. The 1970 Clean Air Act, without allowing trading, reduced emissions significantly through a regulatory approach.
Environmentalists almost always point to the experience under the SOx emissions trading a highly successful use of emissions trading, and that experience was highly influential in persuading nations to adopt emissions offset trading under Kyoto. It is important to note here that no one claims the SOx trading program reduced emissions more or even more rapidly than would have occurred without trading. The argument is that it achieved a given level of emissions cheaper.
SOx trading did reduce the costs of reducing emissions to 9 million tons. But it is unclear just how much the costs were reduced. The Hammarskjold Foundation estimates that at least 20 per cent of the SOx reductions were achieved before the emissions trading program began. Moreover, it argues that factors other than trading were far more important, such as the increased availability of low sulfur coal, and the plunging transportation prices in the aftermath of the railroad deregulation of the mid 1980s. In addition, the claimed cost reductions are from the initially wildly inflated estimated costs of cutting emissions developed by industry. In fact, after the trading scheme got under way, many installations managed to cut emissions without trading at all. Most of those who did trade traded only within their own firm. Interfirm trading amounted to only 2 percent of total emissions.
Thus the savings achieved through SOx trading were probably modest. And it represented a best-case scenario for savings. Measurement equipment was widely available. There was a single target chemical. Only a small number of installations were included in the program.
A greenhouse gas reduction program, however, targets at least half a dozen chemicals and encompasses hundreds of millions of targeted facilities. And measurement and monitoring equipment is unavailable.
Another program adopted about the same time as the SOx trading program might serve as a better model for implementing the Kyoto Protocol. The discovery of the depletion of atmospheric ozone led to the international Montreal Accord. Signatories agreed to phase out specific ozone depleting chemicals. The U.S. Congress coupled the phase-out requirement with a very high tax on chlorofluorocarbons, sending an important price signal it correctly predicted would accelerate phase-out.
Of course, most greenhouse gases can't be phased out. They are part of the natural cycle. But a national and state carbon cap, ratcheted down every five years is similar. To provide a price signal for the market and to raise money for ameliorative investments and other public purposes (e.g., compensating low income households for price increases), impose a significant and increasing carbon tax. Or possibly, governments could auction off carbon allowances (while not allowing trading) and use the money raised for similar purposes.
Offsets should be allowed, but only if they occur on the local level and do not involve long-distance trading. Let me explain this further. For the past year, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has been working with states and cities to encourage the enactment of climate neutral bonding initiatives and climate neutral building codes. Such codes would encourage architects and engineers to design energy efficient buildings. But rarely will they result in literally zero energy buildings. Thus even in the best cases some amount of greenhouse gases will be emitted. That amount will have to be offset. But the offset must come from a comparable reduction of greenhouse gases within the community. If Al Gore were operating under this standard, he would have to invest in greenhouse gas reductions within Nashville equal to the amount of greenhouse gases generated by his house.
Initially architects and builders will see this as an inconvenience. Far simpler to buy offsets from the Chicago Climate Exchange or other offset traders. But eventually, as communities develop an inventory of buildings that need energy efficiency investments, the overhead costs involved will be quite small.
There are psychological, political and economic reasons to favor investing in carbon reductions within the community. Psychologically, it builds self-awareness at the community level about the interrelationship of individual behavior and global environmental consequences. The community as a whole is taking responsibility for its behavior.
Politically, cities and counties have a great deal of authority over policies that affect energy use (e.g., building codes, land use regulations, transportation systems). Here, authority is married to responsibility. A community that decides, as a community, to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol or more rigorous guidelines has many policy tools to move it toward that goal.
Economically, local offsets may be viewed as investments while buying distant paper offsets are more of an operating expense. Offsets must be purchased every year. But an investment will repay itself in energy savings. In the first case, money flows out of the community. In the second case, money not only stays in the community, but after the initial debt is repaid from reduced operating costs, additional money is generated within the community.
Carbon trading makes us feel good. Investing in local carbon reduction strategies will also make us feel good. But unlike carbon trading, investing to reduce local carbon emissions strengthens the local economy, encourages real innovation, and is a long-term, durable strategy.