Offset Critiques

From the beginning some critics focused on the ethics of offsets, comparing their purchase to the historical practice of being able to purchase "indulgences" from the Catholic church in order to clear your sins.

Other concerns have been raised regarding the climate justice implications of carbon offsets:

  • In the case of U.S. companies in poor neighborhoods, for example, critics have argued that the ability to purchase GHG offsets can allow polluters to keep emitting other air pollutants, to the health detriment of local populations (even if GHGs themselves don’t have localized health impacts).

  • In the case of methane-producing landfills in developing countries, critics have argued that landfills resulting in local water and other pollution have been allowed to keep operating because they’re producing carbon offsets, when otherwise they might have been forced to clean up or shut down.

  • In the case of forest conservation projects critics have argued that local residents may be deprived of their ability to make a living.

The biggest criticism of offsets, however, relates to their environmental integrity. It turns out that there are substantial challenges in evaluating the environmental integrity of individual offset projects as well as offset markets, and the Climate Web organizes hundreds of resources specific to this topic. It’s the topic we’ll explore on the next page of this micro-site.

We focus here on the environmental integrity of offset markets, but you can explore other critiques in more depth here in the Climate Web.

The environmental integrity of carbon offsets and carbon offset markets has primarily been a function of how the concept of “additionality” has been defined, interpreted, and implemented. That said, issues of “permanence” and “leakage” have also been quite contentious.

Critiques that we won’t explore in more depth here include:

  • Offset fraud undermining offset markets
  • Inadequate offset quantifiability undermining offset markets
  • Offset double-counting undermining offset markets

Because the topics of additionality, permanence, and leakage have been such tought nuts to crack, and because technologists are interested in using things like Blockchain to tackle climate change, there is a growing story-line to the effect that fraud and double-counting have been much bigger problems than they actually have been. Fraud and double-counting are problems that Blockchain and other technologies could play a role in solving, as opposed to additionality, permanence, and leakage.

While examples can certainly be found of all three of these problems, they have been relatively minor problems in comparison to the others already mentioned. Downplaying the importance of the real challenges facing offset markets just because they don’t have technological solutions doesn’t contribute to climate change mitigation.

It’s interesting to note that the first and last points of this discussion are tied together. The “indulgences” analogy assumes that nothing is really being delivered in return for the purchase of a carbon offset. If offsets are actually mitigating climate change, then the indulgence analogy doesn’t hold water. But if offsets aren’t actually mitigating climate change due to poor environmental integrity, the indulgence analogy becomes a lot more salient.

You can dig deeper into critiques of offset markets through this Climate Site.